I know the headline is a little ridiculous, but please just bear with me. Yes, I am serious: the live-action film spin-off of Dora the Explorer is one of the best adaptations I have seen this year.
Oh, you don't believe me? Fair. I mean, if you would have told me that I would spend one of my rare nights off schlepping to the cinema to see a live-action film about the early childhood cartoon character who teaches toddlers basic Spanish and listing skills, I would have probably laughed you out of the room. However…it's true. And I am not afraid to tell you how much I love this — oh, you're laughing?
Okay, time to explain. Put on your seat belt, grab your backpack, and let's go! Vamanos!
Dora and the Lost City of Gold on paper is a typical "coming of age adventure" movie…except that's not where the brilliance lies. The real treasure of this film is the constantly shifting tone and willingness to experiment for the sake of not only the story, but for the benefit of the adaptation.
What do I mean? Well, for example, one of the first scenes we see is young Dora and her cousin Diego rolling through the jungle in a jeep, straight out of the cartoon. Typical? Expected? Of course. But then it changes – the kids are really in a cardboard box, pretending they're great explorers. Cute? You bet. New? Not exactly, but they do it so well and it fits the narrative and serves the original content so well that you can't help but take notice.
The long and short of the plot: Dora is a 16-year-old girl who finds herself ripped from her jungle home and sent to stay with her cousin Diego in the city and attend high school while her parents search for and document the lost Incan city of gold. Things are not all as they seem though when Dora and her field trip group are kidnapped and forced to lead mercenaries to the treasure of the lost city.
Now, the general story is pretty generic PG action movie in an "Indiana Jones meets National Treasure meets Nickelodeon special" kind of way…but here's where it twists. The twist being that Dora and the Lost City of Gold knows what it's about, and they own it. They know Dora's a complete dork who breaks the imaginary fourth wall and who's best friends with a monkey who she pretends can talk to her. (Or maybe the monkey is just a physical way to manifest the voices inside her head…but I digress.)
At any rate, Dora is the hero by default, but she is never painted as anything but "quirky home-schooled weirdo jungle girl" and it's exactly the hero we need. I mean, really: we have the classic action heroes, our Harrison Fords, our Lara Crofts, but we've never seen a young Latina girl trekking through the jungle, leading the way…all the while greeting poisonous frogs and singing songs about her backpack and pooping.
Dora is weird, and they know it and own it. I feel like it's the only way they could have possibly brought Dora into the "real world" all the while still maintaining the integrity and feel of the character and show. And yes, everyone around Dora sees that she's…well, not quite the same, it doesn't quite pull a total Disney-esque number by having Dora save the day and suddenly everyone loves her: Dora has to prove herself to her friends who then learn to look past the odd behavior and decide to stick by her in spite of that, so that she's not miserable. (Okay, so it still ends with a big dance number…but what do you really expect? It is still a children's movie.)
This is NoHo Hank (the "bad guy" in Barry) in Apocalypse Now…Dora style. It makes no sense, and yet…I am totally on board.
Oh, what – you're still laughing? Don't believe that sweet little live-action Dora can reference such an iconic and brutal film? Well, perhaps it's the jungle setting, or maybe it's the fact that it features one character who knows what's going on and leads a group of innocents into a den of nightmares and danger, but they did feel oddly similar.
Hey, and I'm not even going into the strange Game of Thrones-like subtext between Dora and her cousin Diego. CW, eat your heart out.
At any rate, similarities to other films aside, as an adaptation, it's absolutely brilliant. Why? Excellent question – step over to my precisely laid out bulletin board with some tasteful red yarn accents! Let's pop over to a quick film school lesson: what is an adaptation? It's anything that tells the story of something else in another medium. So…what makes a successful adaptation – just telling the story? No! An adaptation is measured a success if it feels like the original work or is derivative enough to present its own unique take on the same story.
What does this look like? Well, think about Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation, The Outsiders. It has a great cast, a script ripped right from the pages and the author on set. It's an adaptation, sure – they basically filmed exactly what was on the page. Did it feel as exciting or emotional as reading the book? Not at all. Why is that? Because film is a visual medium – when something like, "she stares into his eyes and sees a deep sadness – a torture of what all is past, what his future holds, and all the things that could have been" is written, you feel that pain, you have an idea of how useless and hurtful it feels to be a slave to the universe's will. Now, on screen, what do you see? A tight shot on a pair of eyes, maybe another shot of her looking at him. Not nearly as exciting or emotional, now is it?
So that's why adaptations are tricky – so then how do they go right? Look at Jurassic Park for that one. Michael Crichton's novel provided the basis for the story and the bones of the characters…but that's about it. "Dinosaurs wreak havoc on ill-advised paleo-zoo" is basically the entire plot. However, the film is incredibly good – better than it would have been had Spielberg felt bound by the tone, story points, and character descriptions of the book. Jurassic Park works visually because it knows what it's about.
We now know what really makes the difference in my opinion? Tone. Does it feel like the original, but just updated or does it feel like its own person, with a unique personality, flavor, and performance?
For me, it's the latter – but who knows! You could be one of the people whose brain fills in the gaps with words and knows exactly everything looks and what the characters are thinking and feeling. A little too hippie for you? Yeah, me too.
I suppose that's the reason why I gravitate towards liking the more visual adaptations – both are great, but they take something and make it perfect for their platform, all the while keeping the spirit and heart of the story they're telling.
So…how does this circle back to Dora the Explorer? Simple: it's a true and honest adaptation. They took liberties where they needed to in order to make their story and world work, but they stayed true to who the character was and kept everyone surrounding her genuine.
Oh, and there's a bizarre acid trip type sequence wherein Dora hallucinates in the original animated art style.
Welcome to the new future of adaptations, where anything is possible, and I can't wait for more adaptations like it!
Check out Dora and the Lost City of Gold in theaters, and if you get curious, the original series that started it all is always a classic watch. And Swiper – NO SWIPING!