We had the opportunity yesterday to cover the world premiere DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD! The action took place in downtown LA. Where we got to speak with the cast members about the importance of more Latinx lead films.
An internationally beloved heroine springs to life on the big screen in Dora and the Lost City of Gold, the feature film debut of Dora the Explorer, the iconic Latinx trailblazer whose exploits have delighted parents and children alike since her 2000 Nickelodeon debut. In her first live- action adventure, the now-16-year-old Dora (Isabela Moner) leads an action-packed expedition through the Amazon jungle to rescue her parents from treacherous treasure-hunters while also facing her scariest challenge yet ― high school!
An idyllic early life spent exploring the rainforest with her zoologist mother Elena (Eva Longoria) and archaeologist father Cole (Michael Peña) has done nothing to prepare Dora to face down the most unpredictable creature on Earth, the American teenager. Sent to stay in the city with her abuelita (Adriana Barraza) and her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), Dora finds herself in a blackboard jungle where her wilderness skills do her little good.
A school field trip to the local Natural History Museum seems like familiar territory to the intrepid traveler, until she and three friends are abducted by a band of thieves who need her to track down her parents and what could be the richest archaeological find in history: Parapata, the ancient Lost City of Gold. Transported to Peru, Dora and her friends are rescued from the bandits by Alejandro Gutierrez (Eugenio Derbez), a mysterious jungle inhabitant. Dora and her simian sidekick Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo) lead a trek into the unknown to save her parents and solve the mystery behind a centuries-old lost civilization.
An instant success when it debuted in 2000, the original “Dora the Explorer” ran for 14 years in the U.S., with international adaptations in almost three dozen languages, as well as popular video games, VHS/DVD compilations, books, a sequel series, “Dora and Friends: Into the City!,” and the award-winning spinoff, “Go, Diego, Go!” With a total of 15 Daytime Emmy Award® nominations, “Dora the Explorer” was honored by the Imagen Foundation and the Television Critics Association. The series also earned a 2003 Peabody Award, the prestigious annual honor recognizing distinguished achievement and meritorious public service in media.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold stars Isabela Moner (Instant Family, Transformers: The Last Knight) in the title role, with an international cast including Latin American superstar Eugenio Derbez (Overboard, How to Be a Latin Lover), Michael Peña (Ant-Man and the Wasp, Crash), Golden Globe nominee Eva Longoria (“Desperate Housewives,” Overboard), Jeff Wahlberg (Don’t Come Back From the Moon, Future World), Nicholas Coombe (“Spy Kids: Mission Critical,” Midnight Sun), Madeleine Madden (“Picnic at Hanging Rock,” Tidelands), Temuera Morrison (Aquaman, Moana) and two of Mexican cinema’s most acclaimed actresses: Isela Vega (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Deadly Trackers) and Academy Award® nominee Adriana Barraza (Babel, Amores Perros). Lending their vocal talents to the film are Danny Trejo (Muppets Most Wanted, Heat) and Academy Award winner Benicio Del Toro (21 Grams, Traffic).
The film is directed by 11-time Emmy nominee James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted, “Flight of the Conchords”) from a story by Tom Wheeler (Puss in Boots, The Lego Ninjago Movie) and Nicholas Stoller (The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted) and a screenplay by Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson (The Invention of Lying, “The Power Inside”).
Paramount Pictures, Paramount Players and Nickelodeon Movies present Dora and the Lost City of Gold in association with Walden Media and MRC, produced by Kristin Burr (Christopher Robin, Sweet Home Alabama). Director of photography is six-time Goya Award-winning cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, A.S.C. (The Others, Thor: Ragnarok). Production designer is Oscar® winner Dan Hennah (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies). Costume designer is Rahel Afiley (The Muppets, “Flight of the Conchords”). Editor is Mark Everson (Paddington, Paddington 2). Executive producers are John G. Scotti (Muppets Most Wanted, Alice Through the Looking Glass), Julia Pistor (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Nacho Libre) and Eugenio Derbez.
In August of 2000, Nickelodeon revolutionized children’s television with an animated series that sparked imaginations and subtly taught problem-solving and language skills in one adorable package: “Dora the Explorer.” Inspired by the devoted audiences of Nickelodeon shows like “Blue’s Clues” and “Little Bear,” which combined entertainment with education, the show’s co-creators, Valerie Walsh and Chris Gifford, pitched the network an animated series featuring a spirited preschool girl and her animal friends whose adventures encouraged children to try and solve mysteries along with her. Says Gifford, “The idea was a classic hero’s journey that sends her on a new exploration in each episode.”
Gifford credits the program’s remarkable and long-running success to a combination of engrossing original stories that appealed to kids of every background, and a unique approach to bringing the basics of the Spanish language to preschoolers. After hearing the pitch, network execs proposed using the new series as an opportunity to showcase the diversity of Latin cultures at a time when the Hispanic population in the U.S. was exploding. Each episode included cultural elements and some simple Spanish vocabulary, and launched Dora on a worldwide adventure that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
To refine the concept and create a culturally authentic character, the network brought in several Latinx consultants and Spanish-language speakers, including Leslie Valdes, a Cuban-born, Boston-bred writer and producer. “The idea was to make learning a second language appealing and being bilingual something you should be proud of,” he explains. “Although it wasn’t just about teaching Spanish, countless parents have credited ‘Dora the Explorer’ with helping their children learn Spanish vocabulary.”
And now Dora has arrived on the big screen, accompanied by Boots, her monkey companion, and other characters from the series, as well as some brand-new faces. Directed by James Bobin, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a high-stakes adventure with enough mysteries, suspense, thrills and laughs to entertain the entire family. “After 20 years, Dora has gone beyond being a TV character,” says Bobin. “She’s a cultural icon with a global appeal.”
Bobin, who watched the series for years with his own children, notes that its educational elements and clever wordplay have made it a perennial favorite throughout the world. “The show is the story of Dora and her life with Boots and Swiper,” he says. “It’s very small and simple, and aimed very clearly at young kids. I thought, what a fun idea to take that character, but make it play for everyone, from the people who watched it when they were four and are now 24 to today’s little ones and their parents and grandparents. It’s ultimately a film for a family audience that I can watch with my kids, who are 11, nine and six, and may love it for different reasons than I do, but we all can enjoy it.”
Dora and the Lost City of Gold introduces audiences to a 16-year-old Dora, while retaining many well-loved aspects of the original series. “We’ve included some of the interactive nature of the show, which is fun for younger kids, and of course some Spanish-language elements,” says producer Kristin Burr.
As a teenager, Dora is still the brave, confident and good-hearted girl she was at six. “But having never really had any friends that aren’t monkeys, she’s a bit socially inept,” says Bobin. “We took the character of Dora as she is in the cartoon, made her 16 and put her in an American high school, where she is definitely a fish out of water. She behaves exactly the same way, often with funny results.”
The same skills that helped her thrive in the wilderness — independence, inquisitiveness, honesty — threaten to make her an outcast in the school cafeteria. “Teenagers today tend to be hyper-aware of themselves in the social media sense,” says Burr. “But Dora’s very much about experiencing the world through her own eyes, not on a screen.”
The intrepid girl who is at home in the rainforest is completely out of her element in high school. Her cousin Diego is embarrassed by her lack of social skills; her classmates laugh at her; and the school’s alpha female, Sammy, is annoyed by the competition her intelligence poses.
“She’s never been around kids her own age,” Burr observes. “She’s never even heard a school bell. Everything is new, but she’s a character who’s not afraid of change. She embraces it and is excited to experience and understand new things, which is a lesson we can all learn from.”
Teenage actress Isabela Moner was a shoo-in for the role of Dora from the moment Bobin met her, says the director. Her work in the films Instant Family, Transformers: The Last Knight and Sicario: Day of the Soldado had already established her as a rising star in Hollywood, with both the emotional and physical skills needed for the role. “I saw a lot of people, as you can imagine,” he says. “But Isabela was just so fantastic. There was never a question in my mind. She has an intensity that makes Dora’s action scenes riveting, but she’s also got incredible heart. Isabela is the engine driving the whole film.”
Burr says Moner is “one of those people who is 100-percent good at everything she does. She can improv. She can do comedy and drama. She can sing. She can dance. She’s very athletic. And she gives Dora a wide-eyed innocence that is so much fun to watch.”
Moner came to the project with a notion of who Dora would be as a teen, but says the screenplay provided a very clear road map for the character. “She’s not a kid and she’s not an adult. She’s funnier, more candid and a little bit more chill. I do break the fourth wall, but in a clever way, like I’m talking to a GoPro.”
Drastically different from everyone she meets at a time in life when it’s important to fit in, the young woman quickly learns that the best piece of advice her parents imparted is the simplest: Just be yourself. Dora wouldn’t fit in with her suburban classmates even if she knew how. She brings her deep knowledge of animals, plants, seasons and cultures with her and continues to study the world around her — even referring to the students at her high school as “indigenous people.”
“She doesn’t know how to fake being another person,” explains Moner. “In this world where it seems like everyone’s just living for Instagram, Dora actually does know who she is. I think it’s a great lesson for anyone — and for people my age specifically, who are just figuring out what they have to offer the world.”
Bobin was the perfect director for this project, she says, not only because he knew the character well though his children, but also because he has an innate ability to think like a child. “I think it’s because he truly treasures childhood,” Moner says. “He loves the pure joy and the innocence of it, and that shows in the script and the film.”
Only 17 when the film was shot, Moner was a model of professionalism, according to her cast mates. “I can’t believe she is so young,” says co-star Adriana Barraza, who plays Abuela Valerie, Dora’s doting grandma. “She’s so mature, with a beautiful soul. She is able to communicate everything at first sight. She is Dora!”
Moner’s mother is Peruvian and she herself is fluent in both English and Spanish, with close ties to her Latina roots. “There is no better time for this movie to happen,” says the young actress. “I was so honored to be part of this adventure. It’s a statement to have a movie like this be part of American mainstream culture. It will make many kids and adults proud of their heritage.”
Dora’s parents, Elena and Cole, are played by a pair of leading Latinx actors, Michael Peña, an Independent Spirit Award nominee for his role in End of Watch, and Eva Longoria, who received multiple Golden Globe nominations for her work on the hit series “Desperate Housewives.”
“They each brought their own comedic chops to the set,” Bobin says. “Michael and Eva are very good at improvisation, which, to me, was important. It’s always fun to try things out and they gave a lot of energy to the film.”
Dora’s parents are adventurous academics who have raised their daughter to be fearless, resilient and resourceful. Their life in the jungle has made Dora self-sufficient and sensitive to the world around her. But as Elena and Cole prepare for their most important and dangerous expedition, they decide to protect her — and hopefully help her learn to cope with the world outside the jungle — by sending her to live in the city with her cousin.
Peña was well aware of Dora because his son was a fan of the series and had Dora the Explorer games and books in both English and Spanish. “She is a little superhero, in a way,” he says. “It’s a great story and the main character is Latinx, so there was no way for me to pass this up.”
A scientist and scholar as well as an intrepid explorer, Cole’s city survival skills are a bit rusty. “He’s trying to guide his kid without telling her exactly what to do,” the actor says. “His life experience is pretty much confined to the classroom and the jungle, so he has very limited practical knowledge to impart. But he tries to warn her about the dangers of the big city as best he can.”
Peña says that the best scripts inspire him to improvise dialogue for his character. “With this, I wanted to find some humor and some parental drama. Everyone was on board with that and we did some fun things, like have Cole give Dora outdated safety tips like, ‘Don’t go to a rave.’”
Moner says moments like that were hilarious for everyone on set. “I would stick around the set all day just to hear his improv,” she recalls.
Peña, a Chicago native who grew up in the city’s Mexican enclave of Pilsen, says the film’s message of striving to be true to oneself is important for young people of all stripes. “I thought it was awesome,” he says. “They are all explorers in a situation where they have to follow their hearts. That’s the most important thing.”
Knowing Bobin’s past work, including imagination-driven projects like the two Muppets films and Alice Through the Looking Glass, gave the actor confidence the story would be well-told. “Kristin Burr had been working on this for a while,” he says. “When James came on board as director with a passion for the story, it was perfect timing. He’s made some great movies that are aimed at kids but still very layered. On set it was even more fun than I anticipated. You have to have a certain type of energy as well as a firm grasp of the story to direct a movie with a bunch of kids and some grownups that act like kids. He let us throw ideas at him but he always kept things in context.”
Peña was impressed with Moner’s ability to capture the essence of the character, while still making it her own. “You will definitely recognize Dora. Isabela’s level of commitment was amazing and she makes it feel a little like an old-school Indiana Jones adventure. The sets and effects make you wish you could really be there.”
Longoria remembers the influence that Dora’s debut had on the Hispanic community in her hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. “I was past the stage of watching cartoons at the time, but she still had a huge impact on me and my community,” she says. “She represented us on a mainstream television show. When I first got the script, I thought, Dora the Explorer in live action? How are they going to do that? I love seeing the 16-year-old version of Dora. But I had no idea of the global reach that Dora the Explorer has. People called me from all over the world to say, ‘You’re doing Dora?!’ They were so excited at the prospect of seeing it in live action on the big screen.”
Knowing she would be working with Peña again was a bonus for Longoria. The two had played husband and wife in the 2014 Western drama Frontera. “So when they told me Michael was involved, I said, ‘I’m in!’ Frontera was very serious, so we didn’t really get to have fun or joke around. This time, we had so much fun as these two research nerds. It was exciting to portray two successful Hispanic parents.”
Peña says Longoria was the perfect actress to play Dora’s mother: “She has this really contagious energy and great laugh. The toughest part about acting with her is trying to get through a take without laughing. We got the giggles a couple times, which is good for the kind of energy it brings, but it was sometimes tough to keep our discipline.”
The filmmakers could not have done a better job of casting Dora, according to Longoria. “Isabela embodies the character’s spirit,” says the actress. “She herself is curious about life. She is kind, generous, talented and smart ― everything that Dora was in the series. It’s rare to find an actress so young that is that experienced. She delivered a performance full of emotion and excitement and did it beautifully. She is a movie star!”
The jungle settings will have audiences on the edge of their seats, says Longoria, not just because of the action, but also because they will be dying to join in the fun. “I think that’s part of the appeal,” she adds. “Everybody’s going to want to go on this journey. You’re going to want to climb the rocks and find the poisonous frog and jump over the ravine and so much more. It’s an adventure for the entire family. It’s both suspense-filled and heartfelt.”
Celebrated throughout Latin America as an actor, screenwriter, director and author, Eugenio Derbez has been recognized by Variety as the most influential Hispanic male in the entertainment industry. Derbez, who plays the pivotal character of Alejandro Gutierrez, not only co-stars, but serves as one of the film’s executive producers. A character created expressly for the film, Alejandro frees Dora and her friends from their captors and accompanies the teens on their quest to locate Cole and Elena, providing some of the film’s funniest moments along the way.
“There are lots of layers of humor, both verbal and physical,” according to Burr. “And Eugenio is a physical-comedy genius. He is the victim of every physical-comedy set piece we have. He gets sucked into quicksand. He gets caught in spider webs. He rolls down a hill inside a log. He is constantly getting beaten up inadvertently by these kids.”
Adds Bobin, “Eugenio is a fantastic comedian and a brilliant actor, and we loved him as the character of Alejandro. He’s really fun. And, he and Isabela worked very well together, which was also fun to watch.”
Derbez says his children grew up watching the television series, so Dora has always seemed like a real person to him. “I know and love this character as well as anyone,” he adds. “I can’t imagine a better actress than Isabela to portray Dora. She is fantastic. But it’s a different version of Dora, and that’s what makes this movie so interesting, not just for little kids, but for teenagers and adults as well.”
Longtime Dora fans will be happy to see the return of one of the series’ most memorable characters: cousin Diego. He is portrayed by Jeff Wahlberg, in his first major role in a Hollywood film after supporting parts in Don’t Come Back From the Moon and Future World, a pair of independent features opposite James Franco.
When the movie begins, Dora and Diego are six-year-old best friends, but Diego and his parents are moving back to the big city, and Dora is obviously worried that she’s losing him. “Ten years later, when she joins him in high school, Diego’s major concern is embarrassment,” says Burr. “Dora is completely the opposite. She is not embarrassed by anything. That creates a lot of conflict in the film’s early scenes.”
The city has changed Diego, and it’s hard for Dora to hide her disappointment. “As a kid he knew everything about animals,” says Bobin. “Now he’s the kind of guy who wears sunglasses indoors. You want to like him if you remember Diego from the show, even though he’s not the greatest of friends to Dora in the beginning high school scenes. So the actor needed to be naturally sympathetic. I had to find a guy you’d like despite his character’s behavior, and Jeff really nailed that.”
Wahlberg remembers watching Dora and Diego every morning with his twin sister when they were little. “Dora has always been a very positive, strong role model for boys and girls,” he says. “She stays true to her roots the entire film. I’m thrilled to be a part of it but I don’t think the enormity has hit yet. Maybe it will when people start calling me Diego in real life!”
When Dora arrives at his house, Diego is working hard to establish himself as a player on the high school scene. The arrival of his awkward cousin gets in his way. “I think he’s just trying to be Mr. Cool and find his place,” says the actor. “But when Dora comes and just is completely herself, it blows up everything he’s been working on.”
Wahlberg became tight with his co-stars during the shoot in Australia, where they were often in isolated jungle settings with limited cell service. “Nick, Maddie, Isabela, Eugenio and I spent most of the time together. We have so many inside jokes that we can just look at each other and laugh. Isabela and her mother really took me under their wing and made me feel like family. It was the furthest I had ever been away from home, and it was an adventure in itself just getting there.”
Moner says she felt like her co-star was almost family when she met him. “I’ve worked with his uncle Mark Wahlberg on two films. I didn’t know Jeff, and I didn’t know Mark had a Dominican nephew. Afterward he reached out and asked how it was working with his nephew. Jeff is an absolute sweetheart. He loves his family and I can totally relate to him on that.”
Wahlberg spent most of his downtime haunting the visual effects department, soaking up the process, or watching Bobin direct and getting a glimpse of a different side of filmmaking. But he says his favorite part was watching his fellow actors and learning from them. “I was working with legendary Latinx actors like Michael Peña, Eva Longoria and Eugenio Derbez. These guys have been doing this forever, and they are funny and quick and they all have such great chemistry together. It was really a joy to share the screen with them.
“This is a universal story,” he adds. “But seeing the Latinx community represented this way is so important. And it’s not just lucky for us, it’s lucky for people who get to learn how diverse this culture is. Hopefully it trickles down.”
The film introduces two new characters who are classmates at Diego and Dora’s school. Sammy, an overachieving know-it-all who intends to run the school, and Randy, a nerdy outsider with a crush on Dora, both get caught up in the plot to kidnap Dora, leaving all three stranded in the Amazon rainforest together.
Madeleine Madden, an emerging star in Australia, plays Sammy, a “tri-varsity” athlete, student body president and straight-A student whose feathers are ruffled by Dora’s sudden presence at her school. “I wanted someone who seemed instantly smart in an off-the-charts, beyond- everybody-else way,” says Bobin. “But Sammy is also threatened by Dora, because she’s never met anyone like her before. Dora and Sammy eventually bond in a special way because they recognize and respect each other’s intelligence.”
An Aboriginal actress based in Sydney, Madden easily slipped into an American accent to play the high school student. “Sammy Moore is a bit uptight, and she starts to unravel in the jungle,” she says. “She takes herself quite seriously, so to see her deteriorate is funny. When I read the script what really grabbed me was the humor. It’s definitely a lot more sophisticated than what I anticipated. I think it’s a film everyone will enjoy.”
Madden recognizes the cultural significance of Dora as a character. “She is a great role model for young girls, especially young women of color like me,” she says. “The film dives into what it’s like being a teenager and growing up and making friends and staying true to yourself.”
Randy, played by Australian actor Nicholas Coombe, is the quintessential nerd who has always been invisible at school, but finds a real friend in Dora. “I just thought Nick was such a funny person,” Bobin says. “Randy’s a slightly oblivious guy. He knows he’s not popular at school, and he does care about that, but not enough to do anything about it. He likes Dora because she’s an interesting person and an outsider like him.”
Video-game-obsessed, introverted and academic, Randy has learned to keep to himself, Coombe observes. “He always wants to do the right thing, even if he’s terrified. Randy’s relationship with Dora begins when she introduces herself to him one day, which is an unusual experience for him. They realize that they have similar interests, and Randy is excited to have a friend for the first time. He becomes infatuated with Dora, and they end up on this adventure together.”
Coombe says he grew up on the “Dora the Explorer” series. “It’s influenced a lot of people. Obviously, it helped a lot of kids learn new things. ‘It’s a classic,’ as Randy would say.”
The cast features the talents of a number of well-known Latinx actors, including classically trained Mexican actresses Adriana Barraza, an Oscar-nominated performer for her work in Babel, and Isela Vega, whose distinguished career in Mexican cinema began in the 1960s. Los Angeles-born Danny Trejo and Puerto Rican native Benicio Del Toro also joined the cast, but audiences will be hard-pressed to recognize them ― until they speak.
Boots and Swiper, both essential to the animated series, presented some logistical challenges for the filmmakers. Dora’s best pal Boots (Trejo) is a monkey, and her frequent nemesis Swiper (Del Toro) is a fox. Bobin decided to re-create them in realistic form, tasking visual-effects supervisor Andy Brown with reimagining each as a 3-D photo-real animal.
The director and producer previously worked with Trejo when the actor played one of the villains in Muppets Most Wanted. “We had such a great time with him,” says Burr. “He frequently plays the heavy, but he’s super funny and his gruff voice is a fun contrast to this adorable little monkey.”
Boots is a longtime fan favorite from the show, says Brown. “Lots of people are attached to him and to Swiper. Our job was to take the series’ 2-D design and create a three-dimensional version that fits into live action. And what we came up with is quite adorable. James was very keen to keep the characters believable, so we referenced real monkeys, especially monkeys like the capuchin, an arboreal species that is common in many parts of Central and South America.
“We were very specific about keeping the color of Boots the same, so he’s got gray fur, kind of a yellow belly and a yellow-tipped tail,” Brown continues. “He’s got quite a big muzzle, big mouth, and three feathers on top of his head. He’s such a lovable character. He walks on two legs and he talks, so even though he is a photo-real monkey, he is also a character.”
Del Toro plays Swiper the fox with great gusto, according to Bobin. “Benicio is just the best, really fun and obviously very good at being a bad guy,” says the director. “He’s also really funny. He always had new ideas, new ways of approaching the voiceover. He just nailed that character so well. He also has a slight foxy look to him, which somehow helped bring the character to life.”
Adds Burr: “Who else besides Benicio could play Swiper? He knows how to play a charming thief. He and Isabela had done Sicario: Day of the Soldado together before, so, when we originally approached him, he spoke to Isabela about it personally.”
Dora and the Lost City of Gold began production on August 6, 2018, and filmed entirely on Australia’s Gold Coast, specifically in the state of Queensland on the continent’s east coast, south of Brisbane, and at Village Roadshow Studios, where the production was headquartered during its four-month shoot.
Bobin put together a production crew as diverse as his cast. “I’m English,” he says. “Our production designer, Dan Hennah, is from New Zealand. The cinematographer, Javier Aguirresarobe, is from Spain. The production had a very international feel to it, which is great, because Dora is international. The series and the film are about language and cultural exchanges, and this mix of races and cultures mirrored the real world.”
Veteran Aussie location manager Duncan Jones spent months scouting locations to represent Dora’s home in the jungle, the city where she’s sent to attend high school with Diego, and the trek to Parapata in Peru.
“Surprisingly, southeast Queensland has enough rainforest to easily achieve the South American locations,” he says. “A short distance from the studios, we have some of the best rainforest in Australia. A lot of it is privately owned, so we are often in people’s backyards, which happen to be acres of beautiful, untouched wilderness.”
The locations give the film a visual sweep and natural beauty, says Burr. “We shot in Australia because we wanted big. We wanted real jungles with exotic animals just around the corner. Dan, our wonderful production designer, also created worlds on our sound stages that stand in convincingly for a variety of locations.”
Hennah is quick to share credit for the look of the film with director of photography Aguirresarobe. “Javier is just such a pleasure from an art department point of view, from a production design point of view, and really from every point of view,” says the designer.
“His ideas about lighting and how to make a beautiful picture are phenomenal. We created as much as we could, and he made sure everything is lighted in a way that it looks beautiful. I can’t think of a better cinematographer to shoot this sort of fantasy world.”
The filmmakers’ first priority in bringing the cartoon series to life was to capture its irrepressible energy. “We brought in lots of primary colors, and some of the shapes are a little exaggerated,” says Hennah. “Some of it is very normal, very every day, but we never forget that the story has a subtle fantasy mysticism, a little bit of whimsy — and a lot of energy.”
Some of the most impressive set pieces created by the design team are those set in Parapata, the ancient city known to Europeans as El Dorado. Shrouded in mystery for centuries, Parapata is rumored to be where the Incans hid their enormous stores of gemstones, gold and spices from the rapacious conquistadors. But in the movie, it is believed that the city is still very much alive, hidden in the rainforest, and that powerful spirits guard it from outsiders.
“I grew up on films set in a world of action and adventure,” Bobin says. “Those films always had a historical basis and the genesis of this story is also based in fact. The search for the lost city has been going on since the 16th century, but it has not been found ― yet.”
The idea of a hidden civilization in the jungles and mountains of the Amazon is a real possibility, Bobin notes. Anthropologists estimate there could be 100 or more tribes worldwide that have no contact with the world outside their villages. Many have deliberately isolated themselves to escape persecution by settlers.
To supplement the gorgeous wild landscapes identified by location scout Jones, Hennah and his crew constructed the mysterious Parapata temple as well as the Cave of Clouds, an ancient mechanical underground aqueduct whose skeletal frame was comprised of 28 tons of steel, and a magnificent jungle exterior, all at Village Roadshow Studios, which is home to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest sound stage.
“Once we go through the Parapata gates, we arrive in the city’s main street,” Hennah explains. “At the end of the street is the Parapata temple. It is booby-trapped, as Dora and her friends soon realize, to protect the Incans’ fabulous gold reserves. You might stand on something or touch something or pull the wrong lever and things start to go wrong in a big way.”
The film begins and ends at Dora’s home, deep in the jungle. Finding that setting was Jones’ most challenging responsibility, he says. “We scoured everywhere from the middle of North Queensland right down into the middle of New South Wales before landing in a spot just 10 minutes from Village Roadshow Studios,” he says. “Originally, the brief was to build a house on land with maybe a little bit of a dock going into the water. But once we introduced Dan and James to this location on the Coomera River, that became the spot. It worked perfectly from Dan’s design perspective.”
Hennah is an aficionado of architectural history, which is reflected in his sets for both the Lost City and Dora’s spectacular jungle house. “I’ve worked with Dan for many years, and he never ceases to surprise me with his genius,” says Bobin. “His idea for this was that in the Amazon, the river is your motorway. So, he built this beautiful house on stilts on the neck of a river in Queensland. The remote location emphasizes Dora’s sense of adventure. It looked beautiful and felt exactly like where you would imagine Dora would live.”
For the house, Hennah came up with the idea of adapting a classic Australian design, the Queenslander house, to life in the jungle. Built from timber and corrugated iron, the Queenslander’s wide verandas and high ceilings are perfect for the subtropical climate, providing relief during long hot summer afternoons and protection from monsoonal downpours.
Erected on the banks of the Coomera River on a man-made causeway, the bungalow was situated on a tributary where the water level was stable. Hennah’s construction team sank 20 pylons into the bedrock below the water’s surface as a foundation for a structure that had to support the weight of as many as 200 cast and crew members simultaneously.
Hennah worked closely with set decorator Kathryn Lim, who filled the house with an array of objects that Dora’s parents would have collected during their travels around the world. The eclectic items subtly showcase their history, according to Hennah. “The house is a haven for an archaeologist, a zoologist and a six-year-old girl. It had to be a repository of everything you might ever need in the jungles of the Amazon,” he observes. “Kathryn went well beyond expectations and found amazing pieces all throughout the Gold Coast of Australia and beyond.”
Lim’s discoveries included quilts stitched together from Mexican placemats; Boots’ bed, which is built inside a steamer trunk; a statue of a lamassu, an Assyrian protective deity often depicted as having a human head, the body of a bull or a lion, and bird wings; Turkish glassware; and a collection of assorted dead insects, including butterflies and tarantulas, inspired by Dora’s interest in entomology.
Lim says she asked herself what kinds of things a six-year-old girl would want in her bedroom. “I saw a Queenslander-style dollhouse,” she relates. “The proportions were very similar to the house Dan designed. The interior was quite different though, so we made some furniture that was similar to the furniture we have inside the Dora jungle home. We also added a roof that was a bit more like our house.”
Lim’s other intimidating task was dressing the huge museum set where Dora and her high school friends are kidnapped. The company took over one exhibition hall inside the shuttered Old Museum Building in Brisbane, where production spent just one day inside the cavernous, two-story building. She erected a “natural history” display complete with a whale carcass, stuffed polar bears and lions, and assorted “ancient” artifacts that might be found in a museum of this type.
When it came to dressing the older Dora, costume designer Rahel Afiley turned for inspiration to the television series. In the first scene, Dora appears in her signature pink T-shirt and orange shorts. While Afiley designed several different looks, she stuck close to the classic Dora outfit.
Afiley created more than 40 versions of it, starting with clean and new and progressing to different levels of distressed, reflecting the adventures that Dora and her clothes endure. “We didn’t necessarily try to match the color of her outfit, but wanted to come as close as we could,” she adds. “I feel pretty confident that we didn’t make huge changes, but the ones we did were true to who Dora would be at 16. We paid a lot of attention to the shoes. James and I are both big fans of Palladiums, a classic boot design that immediately screams adventure and discovery. For safety as well as for look, we wanted it to be something that wasn’t flimsy.”
In the animated series, Dora’s ensemble always includes an accessory that crosses the line into character: Backpack, her anthropomorphic satchel. In one key shot in the film, Backpack talks, which is an homage to the original title sequence from the TV show. The design for the signature item came from veteran prop master Gillian Butler.
“The cartoon backpack from the TV series has two eyes and a great big smiling mouth and it talks,” says Hennah. “We talked with James about whether we should try for just an animated backpack. James felt that Backpack is a real-life object that happens to come to life, so we tried to make its actual physical characteristics look like the cartoon face. Gillian came up with hundreds of backpack designs in what was ultimately a very collaborative process.”
For almost two decades, Dora has been celebrated as the heroine of a groundbreaking animated television series, beloved for her indomitable spirit and positive values. The filmmakers hope that Dora and the Lost City of Gold is only the first chapter in a story that continues to inspire future generations. “This is an upbeat and inspiring female empowerment movie starring a young Latinx woman,” says Burr. “I can’t imagine a better time for that. It’s also a big, fun family adventure, with a strong female protagonist. I think people are going to love it.”
The ultimate adventure, says the producer, is not finding yourself; it’s being yourself. “For kids today, just fitting in is an exercise in survival,” she says. “And, luckily, our Dora has awesome survival skills. She is smart. She is sweet and innocent and exuberant. And she is not apologetic for herself at all. James is really excellent at presenting this sort of innocent character. He has fun with the characters, but never makes fun of them. There’s not an ounce of cynicism in him. It’s pure joy and pure love.”
Packed with positive messages, charismatic characters and exciting exploits, Dora and the Lost City of Gold has all the earmarks of a classic adventure story, says Bobin. “As Dora’s mother tells her, the world’s out there to explore. Go out and make some friends ― that’s real exploring. That’s an important message for Dora and for anyone in the audience — it’s great being by yourself and being confident, but at the same time, the world’s about other people, too. Her journey in the movie is how she comes to change through friendship. I love the idea that you can stay true to yourself, but also learn from others and give something of yourself to that new environment. That’s really great.”