When Isabela Moner first heard that the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon Dora the Explorer was getting a live-action adaptation featuring a teenaged Dora, she was admittedly concerned about the idea.
“It’s natural to wonder if what you love is going to be corrupted just to make money off us fans,” said the 18-year-old star of Dora and the Lost City of Gold, which hits Hong Kong cinemas on August 22. “I was sceptical about what Hollywood would do to something that was special to me.”
But that’s not the case here, stresses Isabela, because the movie has everything fans remember about the series, which first arrived on TV screens in 2000. That includes Dora’s signature look: a fringe, a hot pink shirt and bright orange shorts.
Isabela, who has starred in Instant Family and Transformers: The Last Knight, has a previous connection to the intrepid exploradora; she was involved in the show’s 2014 animated spin-off Dora and Friends, which turned Dora from a 7-year-old to a tween. Isabela was the voice of one
of the friends, Kate, so playing the secondary school version of Dora came naturally to her.
“When I read the script and realised it was really clever and fun and kid-friendly, I thought ‘this will work,’ ” she said. “It’s very touching to see all the characters and animals, Boots, the backpack and the songs.”
In the film, Dora lives with her archaeologist parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) in the South American jungle, with only her pet monkey, Boots, to keep her company.
When her parents go to Peru to search for a legendary Incan city of gold, they send the previously home-schooled Dora to live with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and his family in Los Angeles in the US.
Trusting and enthusiastic, Dora is the ultimate fish out of water when she attends a secondary school for the first time.
“She’s not sarcastic at all, she doesn’t have a phone, she doesn’t have social media. She’s completely out of the loop, which I think is funny and has a good dynamic,” Isabela explained.
Eventually Dora, Diego and two other classmates end up in Peru, where Dora’s explorer skills are needed to guide the group on a dangerous rescue mission.
Isabela may be more social media savvy than Dora, but she has a lot in common with her legendary character. Peruvian on her mother’s side, Isabela speaks both English and Spanish (she even learned some lines in the indigenous language Quechua for the role). She also loves to sing and dance (she got her start in musical theatre), and she adores animals.
During the four-month film shoot in Australia, which stands in for Peru, Isabela learned a lot about the unique animal and plant life Down Under – a very Dora-ish thing to do.
“I did a lot of exploring, no pun intended. The plants, the animals, the insects … it’s like, where did these come from, how did they end up here? It’s crazy,” she said. “I visited the zoo and an animal hospital and even got to see a surgery on a koala.”
Isabela believes that Dora could be the kind, intelligent, and inclusive role model today’s teens need, whether they watched the original show or not.
“Right now it’s really cool to not care, so Dora’s unwavering optimism, her unshakeable nature, the strength of her character, her contagious sense of joy … that’s all important for young people to see.”
More about Isabela
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
Siblings: Two brothers. Jared is 22; Gyo is 15.
Pets: A dog that is a Staffordshire terrier-Rhodesian ridgeback mix. “His name is Pluto, and he’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Education: Graduated from high school; studying psychology at a community college.
Favourite book and why: Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. “It’s super empowering and educational. It’s about young Mexican girls, and one in particular who’s an immigrant to the US”
Favorite movie to re-watch: Elf (2003). “My family loves it.”
Musical artist she loves: “The obvious answer is Beyoncé, but also right now, this Spanish artist Rosalía. She takes classic Spanish flamenco music and makes it modern.”
Favourite superhero: Wonder Woman. “I love Gal Gadot, who plays her. She’s so admirable.”
Actor she’d most like to work with: “Donald Glover. He’s also my celebrity crush. I love him so much.”
Hobbies: “Playing with my dog or making music with my little brother, who is actually a producer. He’s really talented. I do the vocals and the melodies.”
Upcoming projects: Let It Snow comes out in November on Netflix. “It’s a Christmas [romantic comedy] for older kids and teens.” It’s based on a holiday short-story collection by John Green, Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle.