When I was a teenager, I had the rare privilege of becoming an older brother once again. For those of you not in the know, this unexpected sibling is what we lovingly refer to as an “oops baby,” named for the sheer surprise their appearance gives to unsuspecting parents who thought they were done having children. Having a new little brother opened up a whole realm of possibilities, which just ended up translating to babysitting duty. While using babysitting as an excuse, I discovered a whole new generation of cartoons that would have otherwise had completely passed me by. Shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Teen Titans, and yes, even shows like Dora the Explorer.
Growing up, I can remember only one time having someone that came close to representing my ethnicity in a children’s show was when Gloria Estefan guest-starred in an episode of Sesame Street. She played “Conga” and another song from her greatest hits, and it was a fun, energetic episode, but ultimately empty when it came to teaching kids about where she was from or any other bit of information aside from using the show as a way to plug her upcoming album. For the most part, I enjoyed Dora and the Lost City of Gold, but by the time the credits rolled, I was left with the same empty feeling I had come to know so well.
Using the children’s cartoon base as a launchpad for this film’s humor was always going to be a huge success. The show was elementary, as most shows meant for developing young minds are, but there was still a lot of untapped material to work with. Having the events take place in the real world provided the perfect backdrop to dig into themes and ideas that are not only timely but also relevant. Unfortunately, this Dora proved not to be that kind of explorer. Instead of proudly diving into her culture and heritage, the film relies on the typical teen tedium which focuses on what someone is wearing and whether they are a “cool kid” or a “nerd.” The culture shock that Dora (Isabela Moner) experiences just ends up boiling down to first-world living and being called “Dork-a” because of her intelligence.
Much like the previous films the writers had worked on (Storks, Muppets Most Wanted, and Monster Trucks), they were perfectly serviceable children’s films. Their innocuous nature made it so you didn’t hate them, but also didn’t make them particularly memorable. Dora follows suit, but only because the writing team didn’t put anything cultural in the film aside from the occasional use of Spanish. As a surprise to no one, this group of non-Latinx writers did a complete disservice to the character by all but erasing the feature that made such an important cartoon figure. In the combined writers’ filmography, the only thing that comes close to showing they had the cultural knowledge to tackle this material was that one of them was a writer for Puss in Boots.
Director James Bobin also takes a familiar approach to Dora, calling on his skills of juggling action, comedy, and musicality and turning out a good, by the numbers film. The comedic timing and over-the-top tone keep the pacing of this teenage Indiana Jones riff from slowing down to a bore. The two main eyesores in the film take the form of a monkey in boots and a fox in a bandit’s mask. One of them looks like it came from a low-budget Disney knock off, while the other is desperately trying to channel a Wes Anderson film. Don’t get me wrong, the characters are fun, but much like the film itself, there are just some problems that are hard to ignore.
Although the representation is lacking narratively, it is a shining beacon when it comes to casting. Talent like Benicio del Toro, Eva Longoria, Michael Peña, Q’orianka Kilcher, Adriana Barraza, Madeleine Madden, Danny Trejo, and Mexican legends, like Isela Vega and Eugenio Derbez. Even in a film with so many strong female characters played by equally strong and prolific actresses, Isabela Moner still manages to stand out among them. Moner’s portrayal of Dora flawlessly and naturally answers the question: “What would Dora be like as a teenager in the real world?” Everything from the nuanced expressions to the mastery of the cartoon character’s quirks not only shows the respect Dora deserves but gives us a glimpse into just how much more could have been explored with and within the character.