FilmSpace: Dora and the Lost City of Gold; Playmobil: The Movie; The Art of Racing in the Rain

Calum Cooper

Film critic Calum Cooper gives his verdict on the week’s newest film, all theatrical adaptations of a show, a toy brand, and a novel respectively.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold – ★★★☆☆

I cannot believe I’m writing this, but the live-action Dora the Explorer movie actually isn’t half bad. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hardly the year’s best film. But it knows both its audience and its source material well enough that it’s unafraid to have fun with its concept and known tropes, while also being true to its nature. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get at least a smidgen of enjoyment from it.

Dora the Explorer was a Nick Jr cartoon about a six year old and her boot wearing monkey sidekick exploring jungles and ruins ala Indiana Jones style, while teaching us Spanish and avoiding the claws of a fox named Swiper (voiced by Benicio Del Toro of all people in this film). Initially the film follows suit, but then fast forwards ten years, where Isabela Moner plays the teenage Dora, forced to move to the city and attend high school, where she struggles to fit in. However, it’s not long before Dora and some classmates are spirited away back to the jungle by poachers, where Dora decides to go on a quest to find her parents and the mythical lost city of gold.

So much of the reason why this film works is down to Isabela Moner, who’s simply delightful. She has this abundantly energetic vibe that’s impossible not to find likeable. She has such enthusiasm for the role she’s in that it rubs off on the audience members. There’s scenes which on paper sound like they would come off typically – such as when Dora goes through school security carrying knives – but Moner’s performance plays the innocent, misunderstanding outsider so well that it’s infectiously funny and or charming rather than corny. When the film migrates from high school to the jungle, Moner maintains that passionate thrill, blending wide-eyed awe with youthful glee masterfully. Casting Moner was spot on.

I walked into the screening with cynical trepidation, but came out pleasantly elated. It’s fun, vibrant, and maintains a love and respect for its audience without ever condescending to them.

The film also seems refreshingly self-aware in regards to its source material. It’s aware of the show’s tropes and more questionable qualities, such as breaking the fourth wall or the repetition concerning Swiper, but it also has a staunch commitment to its characters and the spirit of the show, speaking as someone who has only watched it fleetingly with younger family members. It’s a weird blend between embracing its identity and ridiculing it, which sounds muddled but bizarrely works instead. I think that’s because it approaches this material with affection and appreciation. It’s not above self-mockery, but it’s coming from a place of love for both the show and its audience.

Production wise, the film is decently crafted too. It boasts impressive sets and a sense of kinetic pacing in regards to the action and jungle puzzle scenes that do happen. While the humour does occasionally dip into easy toilet humour, a lot of the comedy comes from Dora’s or her classmates’ inexperience in urban or jungle environments respectively, meaning the actors have a chance to play with their chemistry together. Some of the Indiana Jones parallels towards the end of the film are a bit obvious, but it hardly matters in the grand scheme of things. It’s one of those films that knows precisely what it is and wouldn’t have it any other way, a quality which I’ve always admired about certain films regardless of its target audience.

I had a good time with Dora and the Lost City of Gold, and believe me I’m as surprised as you are. I walked into the screening with cynical trepidation, but came out pleasantly elated. It’s fun, vibrant, and maintains a love and respect for its audience without ever condescending to them. Plus Moner is simply magnetic in a role she obviously had a lot of fun with. Kids will have a blast with it, and even adults may find themselves chuckling along too.

Playmobil: The Movie – ★★☆☆☆

As much as I cherish 2014’s The Lego Movie, the film that got me into movie reviewing in the first place, its success has unfortunately opened the door for products like Playmobil: The Movie. It was inevitable that copycat films were going to rear their ugly heads soon enough, but I’d have thought they would be at least be more inmaginative than this. I suppose this is what I get for being optimistic.

Marla (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a young woman who dreams of adventure as much as she enjoys playing with her wee brother and Playmobil fanatic, Charlie (Gabriel Bateman). The first few minutes are so overblown in its happiness that you know death is going to come knocking. When their parents die in a car crash, Marla assumes guardianship of Charlie, their relationship becoming severed. During one particularly argumentative night, they inexplicably get sucked into a world of Playmobil and get separated. Thus Marla goes on that adventure she’s dreamed of to find and save her brother.

I don’t think the film is terrible, but there’s not much to it outside of being a simple distraction for your toddler. Some of the comedy warrants a chuckle here or there, the pacing is relatively okay, and Anya Taylor-Joy is great as always. It’s colourful and occasionally energetic, but there’s not enough weight to its story or messages to make it on par with the majority of family films, let alone one as brilliant as The Lego Movie.

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The Lego Movie worked so well because it tapped into what made Lego such a universal source of enjoyment, while also having enough thematic substance to deliver a surprisingly impactful message to its audience. Playmobil doesn’t have the distinct creativity or imagination that comes with something like Lego. You could have different sets, e.g. a ranch or an airport, but that was about as diverse as it got. It’s really no different from playing with something like Sylvanian Families if you think about it. Therefore the film is inherently limited in what it can do by comparison.

But even if it had a gazillion options at its disposal, there just isn’t enough distinction in its presentation to keep the attention of either you or your kids. It throws a lot at us, should it be musical numbers or rambunctious comedy or unsubtle messages on family, moving on, and appreciating what you have. But there’s no personal spin or unique style given to any of the above. Even the animation feels too polished and refined to properly resemble the models of the toy brand it’s promoting. At the end of the day, it’s a bare-boned story that has its moments but doesn’t try anywhere near hard enough to create a lasting impression.

Maybe there’s something here for the youngest of audiences in terms of laughs or thrills, but there’s otherwise very little to Playmobil: The Movie. Even when you remove the comparisons to The Lego Movie, it’s a redundant tale with little artistic difference to dozens of other films like it. At best the film is a 90 minute distraction, and at worst it’s a cynical marketing ploy. Although if anything good came from this it was listening to Robbie Collins’ grievances about it.

The Art of Racing in the Rain – ★☆☆☆☆

While it’s certainly not as bad as The Queen’s Corgi or the new Hellboy, something about The Art of Racing in the Rain rubbed me the wrong way. Its initial concept seems odd but harmless enough. Yet the execution is simultaneously so nonsensical and shamelessly mechanical in its construction that I found myself begging for it to end.

Our story concerns a man named Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), an up and coming race car driver. With a name like that though could he be anything else other than a racer? The film isn’t so much plot driven as it is a ‘connect the dots’ picture within Denny’s life. He meets a nice woman named Eve (Amanda Seyfried), has a daughter with her, and when tragedy strikes finds himself in a court battle with his parents-in-law (Martin Donovan and Kathy Baker). As all this goes on, he struggles to balance his love for racing with the storm that is his family life.

Here’s the catch though: the entire story is told through the eyes of the family dog, Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner, who sounds like he’s losing the will to live). So we’re watching this saccharine, but nonetheless heavy, drama unfold between this family, only with Costner dubbing over a golden retriever. He occasionally acts out, e.g. tearing up legal papers, but is otherwise more of a silent witness than an integral player.

It should be said that I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on the quality of the source material, or how the film holds up as an adaptation. But I find this choice so baffling because there seems to be no reason behind making the dog the storyteller other than ‘look – cute dog’. Say what you will about Marley & Me or A Dog’s Purpose, but at least the dog was centre-stage. I like dogs as much as the next person, but telling the story from Enzo’s perspective does nothing to enhance the material because he doesn’t do much of anything throughout the film. If anything the story would be stronger if told straight forward from Denny’s eyes.

It’s mind-boggling how something can be both so preposterous and so miserable to sit through. The Art of Racing in the Rain is a daft idea for a film, but worse than that it’s depressing.

Because the film ludicrously opts to use Enzo’s viewpoint, it becomes a scattershot mishmash of both tone and narrative. It tries to be impactful and layered in its drama, but seems to think that means throwing sad moment after sad moment at us, none of which feel properly thought out or meaningful given the bland nature of the characters. Yet it also tries to balance this with lightweight cutesy moments. It jumps all over the place between dramatic and sappy, creating a sense of manipulation from the screen, which is occasionally interrupted by the idlest of juvenile humour. For example, Enzo feels that Denny’s father-in-law is being needlessly cruel to Denny (which he is). He sticks it to him by doing a colossal poo on the carpet. How highly, highly humorous.

The title is about as clever as the film gets, and I use that word loosely. Denny talks about the difficulty of racing in the rain, and how it takes someone with tenacity to navigate it, which one could argue runs parallel to life itself given the crises Denny and Enzo have to endure. But it doesn’t work because everything is presented in a lazy, black and white fashion. Denny is a two dimensional nice guy. His wife is only a plot point. The daughter is a mere goal for other characters to achieve. And the grandparents are so thoroughly nasty that all the potential grey areas you could explore are nowhere to be found. It’s bad enough that the film is caught between rigid melodrama and bottom of the barrel comedy, but it takes every easy route it can with its story and characters, so much so that we never doubt for a second how everything will turn out. It goes beyond dramatic contrivance and becomes insultingly formulaic, all for the sake of milking a cheap tear out of the easily lachrymose.

It’s mind-boggling how something can be both so preposterous and so miserable to sit through. The Art of Racing in the Rain is a daft idea for a film, but worse than that it’s depressing. Sadness is a good emotion to feel for creating empathy and understanding. But depression comes from watching something so unpleasant that the credits can’t come soon enough. To quote Roger Ebert, “no good movie is ever depressing, but bad movies are always depressing.”

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