Musings of the Dojo: Dora the Explorer Vs. Quentin Tarantino

*Welcome to Musings of the Dojo! Here, I plan to reflect on certain things I’ve recently talked about here at the Dojo. Perhaps this will become a recurring here on my site. Or maybe I’ll completely forget about it after this one time…*

 

 

For those following my site, you’ve probably noticed that among my recent movie reviews are Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold, a live-action film adaptation of Dora the Explorer. In my reviews, I graded Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a 5/10, but gave Dora a 7/10. Could this possibly imply that I actually thought a movie based on Dora the Explorer was better than a Quentin Tarantino film?

I’m not implying anything, let me say it outright: I thought a movie based on Dora the Explorer was better than Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. And I don’t feel bad even in the slightest for saying that.

I don’t say this for the sake of contrarianism. Lord knows there are few things I distaste more than contrarians. And the world of independent internet critics has more than enough of those anyway (newsflash: conforming to non-conformity is still conformity). I say this as a Quentin Tarantino fan, I didn’t care for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s not a horrible movie (again, I rated it 5/10. For me, it’s when things get to 3/10 and lower when they’re in the “avoid at all costs” range), but it does feel like a product of complacency on Tarantino’s part.

Quentin Tarantino isn’t a stranger to rewriting history with his films, as he did just that ten years ago with Inglourious Basterds. So for Tarantino to make a movie in which the Manson murders are undone, and instead the members of the Charles Manson cult who carried out the murder of Sharon Tate are the ones who end up dead by means of a stuntman, his dog, and a flamethrower, just makes sense for the famed director. And the ending in which this rewriting of history takes place is the best part of the film. There’s something bizarrely wonderful about Tarantino using his trademark style and gratuitous violence to rectify a historical tragedy. The problem I have with Hollywood is that Tarantino seemed to have come up with a great ending, but couldn’t think of a path for the rest of the movie to take to justifiably earn that ending.

Tarantino spends too much of the film either indulging in some of his tropes (such as a disjointed narrative, with the stories of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters stories really having nothing to do with Sharon Tate), while staving off others (the director’s stylistic violence really only shows up at the end of the film). But the different storylines never mesh together in any seamless or meaningful way. Again, there’s something that feels complacent about it, like Tarantino was so confident in the ending and in his style that the actual story at hand, and how to tie everything together, were such afterthoughts that he forgot about them altogether.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m just ragging on Tarantino. Again, I’m a fan of his, I’d place him on my list of top 10 filmmakers. And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t a total bust. It has moments that showcase the director’s brilliance. But that’s just the thing, it’s only in moments of Hollywood that we get glimpses of what Tarantino is really capable of. As a whole, however, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just never comes together. It’s too fragmented – both in story and tone – for its own good.

Meanwhile, Dora and the Lost City of Gold – while perhaps not a great movie – was nonetheless better than it seemed to have any right to be. Yes, it’s a kids’ movie, and a bit silly. But it was a well made silly kids’ movie. It was fun, funny, didn’t feel like it talked down to its young audience, nor was it ashamed of its source material. And I feel it had a nice message for kids about being comfortable with who you are, even if you may be on the socially awkward side.

Essentially, I think Dora and the Lost City of Gold did a better job at being a Dora the Explorer movie than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did at being a Tarantino film. Yes, I understand this is comparing apples to oranges, so why bother doing it?

Simple, because I think as far as professional film critics, and even most self-proclaimed cinephiles go, this very idea would be considered some kind of blasphemy. Critics and film buffs too often like to put themselves on a pedestal for their perceived superior intellect to the average moviegoer, and their supposed open-mindedness. But frankly, they could definitely benefit from branching out a bit. As much as they like to brag themselves up, critics and film buffs too often have a very narrow view of what constitutes a good movie, and have a very strict ruleset placed on themselves that makes their often arrogant attitudes that much more unfounded.

Basically, any such critic or cinephile would scoff or outright belittle my stance that I found a Dora the Explorer movie to have more merit than Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, because that would go against their definition of what’s good, and would defy their rules. Thinking a Tarantino film failed to deliver while thinking a silly kids’ movie was effective would probably be enough for many critics – both professional and independent – to grab their torches and pitchforks and form a mob against me (or anyone who shares similar opinions).

Now, I certainly hope I don’t sound like I’m patting myself on the back. There are many instances where I agree with critics and film buffs (again, I usually think Tarantino is quite good). The last thing I want to do is put myself on a a pedestal similar to the people I’m commenting on. I’m merely trying to state that I think there’s a problem within the world of cinema that, like these critics and cinephiles, seems shackled to a very specific idea of how to appreciate movies. Just look at most critics’ lists of best films of any given year, and you’ll notice the same types of movies – usually those that pander directly to critics – dominate pretty much all of them. Sure, you might see a mainstream movie and an animated feature thrown in for the “audience cred” every so often, but such selections usually come across as mere tokens (especially seeing as so few critics would ever seem to consider placing such films on the upper half of their lists).

I really think this close-mindedness of “serious” film critics and fans has become a major problem. If you need some damning evidence, the Academy Awards nearly created a “Best Popular Film” category, as a means to throw a bone to the common moviegoer, only to retract the concept of the award soon thereafter, as it was basically an admittance to their insistence that only “their movies” are worthy of Best Picture.

The world of cinema would do itself a lot of good if those with voices in the medium would shed a good deal of their pretensions and lighten up a bit. Someone like me shouldn’t have to feel hesitant to state that they enjoyed a Dora the Explorer movie more than a Tarantino film. But that’s exactly the kind of atmosphere that critics and cinephiles have created around the movie world. You can’t be considered a serious lover of cinema unless you fall in line. And that’s a problem.

Okay, now I’m really getting sidetracked. I was initially just writing this as a means to express my preference to Dora and the Lost City of Gold over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But I repeat that I was hesitant to do so, because of the stigma it might put on me, my site, and my overall views of movies by the aforementioned “serious” film buffs. Granted, I don’t exactly have a large following (to put it lightly), so it’s not as if I expected backlash per se. Just that it’s kind of sad that you could pretty much picture the exact reaction a more pretentious movie type would have should they read that someone actually thought Dora and the Lost City of Gold was a better movie than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Simply put, I think the movie world would benefit if, instead of adhering to a very, very specific idea of what constitutes good films, the more critical side of cinema followed the open-mindedness they like to preach, and judge films based on how successfully they accomplishes what they set out to do.

Of course we’re all going to have our preferences (and I am no exception), but critics and “serious” movie fans too often seem to surrender to some kind of hive mind with their preferences (“independent movie = automatically good.” “The more popular a movie, the dumber it must be.”). Again, we all have our preferences, but it’s important to bring individuality into critiquing. Movie buffs and critics frequently seem to lump things together with preconceived notions, instead of viewing a film for its individual merit.  And again, their preferences don’t even seem to be based on their own individuality, but a preconceived idea of what they’re supposed to like.

I again have to stretch that I am, in no way, shape or form, promoting contrarianism. Disliking things for the reasons that they are popular or acclaimed is every bit as toxic as critics’ “follow the leader” method I’m talking about. I stress that my point is critiquing any form of art should come from a place of individualism, both of one’s self and of the work you’re critiquing. You don’t want to cave into some preconceived hive mind, but you also have to be able to appreciate things even if they don’t fall squarely into your preferences. You, as an individual, should be critiquing things based on their merits as an individual work.

The cinephiles and critics expect Quentin Tarantino to make great movies, so surely Once Upon a Time in Hollywood must be a masterpiece. It was decided ahead of time. But a Dora the Explorer movie sounds like a stupid idea for the kiddies. Even though the latter did defy expectations and received a surprisingly warm reception, it of course is only allowed to go so far. And claiming it could possibly, under any circumstance, be better than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is certainly going too far.

Well, as a Tarantino fan, I expected a good movie out of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Instead I ended up bored and anxious with it, like Milhouse waiting for Itchy and Scratchy to get to the fireworks factory. Meanwhile, I didn’t’t have expectations for Dora, but I ended up having fun.

In short, I thought Dora the Explorer kicked Quentin Tarantino’s ass. And I don’t feel bad about it.

 

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Dora and the Lost City of Gold Review

Nobody ever likes to be wrong. Especially in this day and age of the internet, when we can anonymously spout our views as condescendingly as possible, we don’t want to end up with egg on our face later.

But, y’know, being wrong can be a blessing at times. Case in point: I thought Dora and the Lost City of Gold – a live-action film adaptation of Dora the Explorer – looked like the stupidest movie ever based on its initial trailer. But lo and behold, it’s actually a good movie. I don’t say that ironically, either.

In my defense, what kind of expectations was I supposed to have about a live-action Dora the Explorer movie? That first trailer really didn’t do it any favors, either. It looked like a watered down Tomb Raider (it in itself a watered down version of a watered down Indiana Jones) that just used the Dora the Explorer franchise to draw in a younger crowd. But when the second trailer presented that “Can you say ‘delicioso?'” gag – in which a young Dora talks to the audience like in the series, only for Dora’s parents to look around dumbfounded as to who their daughter was talking to – it got my attention. Then when the film was released and began getting a warm reception, I thought I’d give Dora and the Lost City of Gold a look. I’m glad I did, because it is actually an entertaining and often very funny movie.

The movie begins by explaining away how the edutainment/kid-friendly series can be translated into a live-action film. As it turns out, the reason why Dora had so many adventures with animals in the jungle and other exotic locations during her childhood is because she’s homeschooled by her parents, who are professors traveling the world. Dora’s anthropomorphic backpack and map were simply products of her imagination, and her sidekick Boots is just a wild monkey that Dora liked to dress up. Humorously, Swiper – the mildly antagonistic fox from the series – isn’t explained away as part of Dora’s childhood imagination, but is indeed an actual talking, mask-wearing fox (comically voiced in the film by Benicio del Toro). The fact that certain aspects of the series are given explanation, but Swiper is as real as Dora and her parents, sets the mood for the silly nature of the movie ahead.

The majority of the film takes place a decade after Dora had her many adventures. Now 16-years old, Dora (Isabela Moner) is still traversing jungles, making discoveries, and yes, still talking to the audience (which she does via live-streaming in her teenage years, though the film still finds plenty of humor in the idea of Dora talking to the audience and breaking the fourth wall). But Dora’s parents, father Cole (Michael Peña) and mother Elena (Eva Longoria) think it’s time Dora took a break from dangerous jungle life, and to finally socialize with people her age. Dora is more than a little bummed, especially because her parents have deciphered the location of the legendary city of gold, Parapata.

Dora is sent to Los Angeles to stay with family and live a normal high schooler’s life. She is reunited with her cousin, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) who has grown up to be a jaded teenager who’s embarrassed by his cousin’s highly optimistic and adventurous personality. I find this humorous just by the nature of it. Diego was the star of the spinoff series to Dora the Explorer, “Go, Diego, Go!,” so he was expendable in the sense that the film has no qualms with turning him into a stereotypical teenager, while Dora remains her happy-go-lucky, children’s television character self.

Naturally, Dora is a bit socially awkward, and quickly becomes the butt of jokes of the students around the school. She inadvertently makes a ‘frenemy’ in the form of the school’s know-it-all, Sammy (Madeleine Madden), and befriends Randy (Nicholas Coombe), the punching bag of the school bullies.

One thing I really liked about Dora and the Lost City of Gold is that it never feels the need to go down the “makeover” story arc in order for Dora to learn to accept herself. A lot of family movies have a “be true to yourself” message, but usually only get there by the end, with the hero (usually heroine in this scenario) needing to at first change themselves before they realize that doing so for the sake of others isn’t worth it.

Here, Diego tells Dora that her optimistic attitude, nerdy disposition, and childlike enthusiasm make her a target for the rest of the school. But Dora – rather than coming to some realization of the nature of the people around her and deciding to go the aforementioned “makeover” route – simply responds that she knows what people are saying behind her back, and that they’re laughing at her. She just doesn’t care because she can only be who she is. There’s something really refreshing about Dora’s confidence, and how a kids’ movie has a main character who is awkward and may not fit in, but who also doesn’t care about that and is comfortable in their own skin.

After adjusting to school life for a time, Dora suddenly loses contact with her parents just as they were getting close to finding the city of Parapata. Dora soon finds out why when – during a school field trip – she, along with Diego, Sammy and Randy, end up captured by treasure hunting mercenaries and wind up in Peru.

It turns out Dora’s parents have gone missing, and the mercenaries are looking for them in hopes of claiming Parapata’s treasures. The mercenaries now hope Dora can track her parents so they can find the lost city, before an old friend of Dora’s parents named Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), rescues Dora and her friends from the mercenaries’ clutches. It then becomes a race between Dora and her companions against the mercenaries – who have recruited none other than Swiper – to find Dora’s parents and uncover the secret of Parapata.

You probably want to laugh when you read such a synopsis, what with Dora taking on mercenaries and going on an Indiana Jones style adventure to a lost city. But Dora and the Lost City of Gold wants to laugh right alongside you. The film is very self-aware and often tongue-in-cheek, but not in a way that feels insulting to its source material. Yes, this is very much a kids’ movie, but it’s one that seems to be made for both young children who are being introduced to Dora the Explorer, and for the adults and teenagers who grew up watching Dora the Explorer. This is a movie that seems fueled by the very same ‘young children’s television logic’ of the series, but presents it with a coy wink and smile to the older audience. It’s a fish-out-of-water story, with said fish-out-of-water just so happening to be Dora the Explorer.

In that regard, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is actually a very smart movie. It’s easy to imagine in this day and age that a movie could have the gimmicky premise of a children’s TV character adjusting to the ‘real’ world (though in most cases these days, they would probably aim for a ‘hard R’ rating with such a concept, because Hollywood still hasn’t realized that taking cute things and making them “edgy and raunchy” is the most overplayed joke ever). But because this film actually uses an existing children’s franchise – and one as popular as Dora the Explorer no less – for such a premise, it melts away the ‘gimmicky’ aspect of it, and in turn the film is both a parody and loving homage to its source material. Dora and the Lost City of Gold is all the more entertaining for it.

I will happily admit to laughing out loud numerous times during the movie. It’s silly and fun, and in a way that doesn’t talk down to young audiences. Sure, the film may have a little more bathroom humor than I’d like, but I’m also not part of the film’s primary demographic. So if children think it’s funny, then job well done.

With that said, the film does find ways to make even that bathroom humor work within the context of Dora the Explorer. When one of Dora’s friends has to “go number two” in the middle of the jungle, the punchline isn’t so much the bathroom situation itself, so much as Dora’s attempt to make it “less awkward” by singing a song about digging a hole for her friend to use as a toilet. As you might expect, the song doesn’t exactly make Dora’s friend feel more comfortable about the situation. It’s obviously not high-brow humor, but I admit I laughed.

Admittedly, not everything in the film works. The special effects of the film – particularly the CGI used to bring Boots and Swiper to life – definitely look outdated. I get this isn’t a movie with an Avengers-level budget, but it’s always a bit of a shame how kids’ movies get shortchanged with such things, as if they don’t deserve the extra effort. Another issue is that the film’s third act might teeter a little too much into Indiana Jones territory, with booby traps and ‘jungle puzzles’ perhaps taking a little too much center stage over the humor and overall “Dora the Explorer-ness” that gives the film as a whole its charm.

I suppose some audiences might also get annoyed with how little Dora’s companions seem to contribute to the adventure. But I think Dora and the Lost City of Gold actually justifies having a main character who seems to be the only useful member of their group for two reasons: The first reason is based in the film’s logic. As the movie points out, Dora grew up in the jungle, while her friends have believed high school was as harsh as their lives could get, and have just been thrust into the jungle. So Dora, most appropriately, is serving an educational role for her team.

The other reason is more thematic. In the world of high school, Dora is a socially awkward misfit because of her adventurous attitude and profuse friendliness. But once everyone is in the jungle, the same things that Dora is mocked for in high school end up showing their many merits. While the film might at first seem like it’s laughing at Dora for her precocious nature and social naiveté, it doesn’t take too long to realize the film is actually saying that Dora’s spirit and enthusiasm – even with its basis in children’s television logic – is more genuine than the ‘real’ people of high school.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold may have a few hiccups here and there, but it’s also – beyond all expectation – a much better film than you’d think it has any right to be. It’s consistently funny and entertaining in a way that should satisfy children, their parents, and those who grew up watching Dora the Explorer and shows of its ilk. It’s humorous while also being respectful to both its target audience and source material. Special mention also has to go to Isabela Moner’s performance as Dora, which captures both the essence of the television character, while also bringing out the charisma and humor needed to make such a character work in a movie.

While Dora and the Lost City of Gold may not exactly boast the educational merits of the TV series it’s based on, I think it still has an important lesson to teach youngsters. Be nice to those who are socially awkward, and if you happen to be among them, take pride in who you are. Because if you and your friends end up lost in a jungle, we all know who everyone is going to have to rely on.

 

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