Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a surprisingly good live-action version of the cartoon phenomenon

L-r, Michael Pea, Isabela Moner and Eva Longoria, in a still from Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Picture: Paramount
L-r, Michael Pea, Isabela Moner and Eva Longoria, in a still from Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Picture: Paramount

Dora and the Lost City of Gold (PG)

Four stars

As Hollywood pillages pop culture for ideas and it seems like every vaguely successful television show, video game or even phone pictography is ripe for a film adaptation, the idea of approaching a new adaption can be an nerve-wracking experience. For every Muppet Movie, there's a Super Mario Brothers. For every Mission Impossible there's an Emoji Movie.

Dora The Explorer is a cultural phenomenon - on one level a cute cartoon about a bilingual primary schooler who explores her South American jungle home with the help of her trusty talking Backpack, friendly Map, and monkey pal Boots, on another it is really a primer for the pre-schooler on numbers, shapes, geography and language.

I have a friend whose pre-schooler confuses her parents by asking for things in whole Spanish-language phrases she has learned from Dora while her parents weren't paying enough attention to understand what she's asking for.

For parents forced to take their darlings to the cinema to see Dora's big-screen debut these holidays I am pleased to announce that this is one of the better TV-to-film adaptations, not the least because director James Bobin and his team don't take themselves or their subject matter seriously for a second.

Explaining away the transition from familiar cartoon, the form in which we first meet Dora and her visiting cousin Diego enjoying a jungle adventure, to human children (played by Madelyn Miranda and Malachai Barton) play-acting with rich imaginations is clever.

Here we learn that Dora lives in the South American jungle with her explorer parents (Michael Pena and Eva Longoria - recipients of some of the funnier dialogue written by Muppets writer Nicholas Stoller and Puss in Boots scribe Tom Wheeler).

Later, a now 16 year old Dora (Isabela Moner) is being sent to live with Diego and her relatives in Los Angeles while her parents are on the trail of a dangerous new discovery.

Like the characters from the Brady Bunch Movie, Dora is an anachronism in a contemporary Los Angeles high school, perpetually optimistic and cartoonishly friendly, to the embarrassment of Diego (now played by Jeff Wahlberg, nephew of Mark and New Kids on the Block's Donnie).

'This isn't a jungle where you can be best friends with a monkey, this is high school, it's life or death,' Diego imparts.

The cousins swap high school drama for tiger stakes drama when they - along with school pals Sammy (Madeline Madden) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe) - are kidnapped from a school excursion and find themselves back in the Amazon as the bait for a group of evil folk on the trail of Dora's parents and their lost city of gold discovery.

The main cast are all cheerily perfect in their roles, as is Mexican star Eugenio Derbez as their mysterious rescuer. The plot is a hybrid of any of the Indiana Jones films, parts of Jumanji, any teen high school comedy, mixed with a season of Dora episodes.

The film owes a debt to a gag of a short film - a fake trailer for a then non-existent Dora movie made for the comedy website College Humour, with Modern Family's Ariel Winter as a wise-cracking action-hero version Dora. The clip has 40 million views and counting. Ah, the power of the internet.

The 2019 feature version lives up to the comedy promised in the funny fake movie trailer, particularly a scene where Dora has a psychotropic fever dream and starts seeing her friends and surroundings, once again, in the animation of the original cartoon series. Most winning are the sets designed by Dan Hennah, working on the Movieworld Studios site in Queensland, and with Queensland locations substituting for many of the Amazon scenes. It doesn't feel like watching this film is supporting local Australian production - but turns out it is, so you can feel good about how you spent your dollars making your kids happy these school holidays.

One of the unspoken tragedies a parent endures is the moment your child grows out of a TV show you thought you only tolerated but came to like - but here Dora is funny and complex enough for your tots to enjoy through their teenage years, with you watching on.

This story A surprisingly good adaptation first appeared on The Canberra Times.