“Ciudad perdida”: on Dora & the Lost City of Gold, and the enduring appeal of the lost city

A publicity shot from Dora & the Lost City of Gold. Image: Paramount.

This article contains spoilers for Dora and the Lost City of Gold, a film for nine year olds.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is one of those surprising, far-better-than-it-needs-to-be kids’ films that occasionally rise from the morass of wisecracking CG animal films and extended toy adverts. A live action sequel to long running pre-school animation Dora the Explorer, it’s a charming, periodically waspish teen comedy that acts as a meta-commentary on the source material, poking fun at and cheerfully deconstructing the tropes of its TV predecessor.

It’s also, as the title promises, a film about a lost city, driven by an adventure plot that pits Dora and her friends against ruthless mercenary treasure hunters in the quest for a fabled Incan city. This slots it comfortably into a vein of adventure fiction where explorers seek out long lost mythical places, in search of treasure or knowledge but often finding that the fabled city was lost for good reason. It’s a sub genre that most of us can probably recite the modern lineage of, a line that runs from the pulps, especially the antics of Allan Quatermain, through the black and white movie serials and given new life by Spielberg and Lucas in the Indiana Jones franchise.

The sub-genre mostly lives on now in videogames, led by Indy’s modern day successors Lara Croft (the Tomb Raider series) and Nathan Drake (Uncharted). That these stories should flourish in an interactive medium isn’t surprising – it’s one thing to see epic vistas of a crumbling metropolis in a couple of nice effects shots in a movie, a whole other level of wish fulfilment to spend hours navigating those deserted streets yourself, evading traps and solving puzzles.

Hollywood, always keen to cash in on a popular multi-media brand, has found it difficult to shift the archaeological adventure genre back to the big screen. Three Tomb Raider movies have received decidedly mixed receptions, while an Uncharted movie has been lost in development hell for so long it’s in danger of fading into myth itself.

For the writers and execs who have fallen into a creative abyss trying to wrangle Nathan Drake’s sprawling adventures into a conventional action movie, it’s a bit awkward that Dora and the Lost City of Gold’s third act so efficiently delivers the thrills and wonder that an audience wants from a lost city story. When Dora and her friends reach Parapata they have to deal with traps, puzzles, and the spectacle of fabulous treasure and lost magical power – all in a movie that crams in jokes, teen angst and a cartoon monkey too.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Dora is a kids movie that allows it to shake off the adult concerns that might inhibit a movie for grown-ups. It can embrace the lost city tropes, worries that protecting a treasure haul with puzzles doesn’t make sense, or the fact that the city would be visible by satellite (even the 1950s-set Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull felt the need to demolish its lost city in the last act so as to “explain” why it wouldn’t show up on Google Maps half a century later). A story for children doesn’t need to mitigate its fantasy with arbitrary divisions between what is and isn’t plausible in the genre. It can just have fun with it.

Plausibility concerns aren’t the only problems with the lost city genre. The idea of lost civilisations can often be tied up with unsavoury presumptions about the arc of history, the racist urge for white fantasy writers to ascribe the architectural achievements of the peoples of Africa and South America to some kind of lost Aryan super race, the kind of “graceful” pallid people that a colonial mentality could allow itself to believe built pyramids and ziggurats. Dora dodges that problem – the indigenous people who protect Parapata are mysterious and understandably hostile to treasure hunting outsiders, but they’re also fair-minded and fully in control of the ancient powers under their protection.

These narrative challenges need to be addressed if the lost city sub-genre is to carry on, and carry on it almost certainly will. In a world that has been mapped so comprehensively we can pore over it via Google Earth, one where are our own urban civilisations seem to be heading for collapse as resources run scarce, the idea of fallen cities, the remnants of past civilisations more advanced or more doomed than our own has an irresistible appeal. To imagine walking through the streets of a long dead city, discovering forbidden knowledge and clues to a history lost to the records book, is to experience a kind of re-enchantment, to take our extensively mapped, resource-depleted world and restore to it a sense of mystery and potential.

That’s an imaginative impulse that will stay with us, until it’s our own cities that fall silent, vegetation slowly reclaiming the streets we once walked.   


Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.

There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.