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.