Home > Reviews > DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD – John Debney and Germaine Franco

DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD – John Debney and Germaine Franco

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Little Dora Márquez has been charming young children for almost 20 years as part of her immensely popular Nickelodeon TV series Dora the Explorer. Dora, an animated seven-year-old Latina girl, gets into numerous adventures over the course of the series, accompanied by her faithful monkey friend Boots, and in the process teaches kids geography, mathematics, problem solving, and basic Spanish language skills. Dora has been translated into dozens of languages and has been broadcast all over the world, but now she makes her big-screen debut in this new film, Dora and the Lost City of Gold, from director James Bobin. In it, Dora has been re-imagined as a precocious but socially awkward teenager who – after spending most of her life growing up in the jungle with her adventurous parents – is sent to attend an urban high school. However, when her parents go missing, Dora enlists several of her new high school pals to help her solve the mysteries of an ancient Incan civilization, and save her family. The film stars Isabela Moner in the title role, and features Eugenio Derbez, Michael Peña, and Eva Longoria in the supporting cast.

The score for Dora is by composers John Debney and Germaine Franco, and it’s excellent. Debney needs no introduction – he is a steady hand at big, adventurous orchestral scores like this – while Franco is an expert in Mexican music who began her career as an assistant to John Powell, and recently worked with Michael Giacchino on the songs and score for the Mexican-themed Pixar animated film Coco. Director Bobin asked Debney to pull out all the stops in the score – “less electronics, more melody” were his specific instructions – and he delivered in spades, writing a score which feels like a children’s version of Raiders of the Lost Ark in tone and approach. Franco’s remit was to bring complete Latin American authenticity to the sound palette; according to the score’s press details, the duo blended their full orchestra and choir with various indigenous Andean and other Latin singers and musicians, including performances by ethnically authentic instruments such as conch shells, quena wood flutes, toyo and siku pan pipes, tarka Bolivian recorders, cajón percussion boxes, charango Peruvian lutes, and various other indigenous drums. In addition, Franco wrote poems in Spanish, which were then translated to the Quechua language by scholar Américo Mendoza-Mori, and subsequently performed by soloists Phaxsi Coca and Dante Concha, who are heard singing and playing Andean flutes in key moments of the film. All this authenticity and attention to detail is outstanding, and worthy of praise, but the regular man-in-the-street will simply be overjoyed at hearing such an unrestrained and unabridged orchestral action-adventure score of the highest order.

The score opens with a new orchestral version of the catchy “Dora the Explorer Theme Song” from the TV show, performed by Francesca Ramirez and featuring a new rap/hip-hop section sung in Spanglish that will likely appeal to the movie’s core demographic, but drive everyone else to distraction. However, once the score begins in earnest in “The Legend of Parapata” its classic adventure music all the way – and what a ride it is, right from the big orchestral crescendos and breathy pan pipe blasts that anchor the opening cue. One thing I will say, right out of the gate, is that without the context of the film to guide you, the numerous recurring themes tend to be a little elusive. There are several themes, obviously, but unlike other scores of this type which batter you into oblivion with repetition after repetition, Debney and Franco reveal them subtly, so that when they do emerge into prominent statements, the impact feels earned. Instead, a lot of the beauty of Dora is in the detail – the painting of an atmospheric canvas, the interplay between the instruments, the creativity in the orchestration, and the direct emotional content.

Much of that emotional content is derived from fairly traditional orchestral combination writing – warm strings that melt into tremolos, sensitive pianos, pretty textures for harps and guitars, and so on. There are some vague echoes of Thomas Newman in some of the chord progressions, especially in cues such as “Mad Because You Are Leaving” and “10 Years Later,” both of which are beautifully bittersweet, but also have a resolute and determined core. However, the most obvious homages are clearly in the direction of John Williams, as Debney and Franco seek to channel the master’s most poignant emotional touches. Cues like “And You Are Not Going” and “Am I a Weirdo” build on the sense of separation and loss Dora feels when she is away from her parents and her jungle home, and eventually this crystallizes into a recurring theme that appears to represent that very concept.

The Family theme, which has a number of (unexpected) stylistic similarities to Williams’s theme from Born on the Fourth of July, first emerges as a beautiful cello solo in “I Had the Weirdest Dream,” and later becomes much more grandiose in “Helicopter to Reunions,” thereby establishing itself as the emotional heart of the score. It is often augmented with moments of choral beauty, evocative writing for ethnic woodwinds, and additional piano and brass textures that are really lovely. Additional cues such as “Opera House,” as well as parts of “She Knows This Monkey” are similarly appealing.

As this is a children’s film, of course the emotion needs to be counterbalanced by some lighter fare, and this comes by way of some upbeat comedy music featuring mambo rhythms, festive brass, and upbeat dance-like percussion. Tracks such as “Angry Pygmy,” “First Day of School,” and “Making Friends” embrace this style wholeheartedly, and the composers have a lot of fun working in hints of the classic Dora theme, going a little jazzy with the clarinets, and breaking out the wakka wakka guitars.

However, for me, the highlight parts of the score are the action and suspense cues, which are not childish or light in any way, and in fact represent some of the most satisfying full-throttle action scoring heard anywhere this year. Debney and Franco take it completely seriously, giving their orchestra free reign to be as loud, bold, rambunctious, and flamboyant as possible. The orchestra is often underpinned with deeply complicated percussion rhythms, includes moments of ethnic detail featuring breathy woodwinds and rattling shakers, and occasionally bursts forth into full-throated choral glory, all of which makes for deeply satisfying listening. Debney and Franco also don’t shy away from creating moods of spooky mystery and light horror either; the first half of “New Cave” and subsequent cues like “Someone Lives Here,” “I Outwitted You,” “You Have Friends Now,” and “Moon Gate” offer dark orchestral chords, whispering and singing in Quechua, and rich Goldenthal-esque overlapping brass textures, as well as a recurring motif that appears to have its roots in John Williams’s 1978 Dracula score (listen at 0:45 of “I Outwitted You” especially). In “Alejandro’s Gold,” during the score’s final third, there is a combination of the Fourth of July-esque theme and the Dracula-esque theme that is really quite impressive.

In terms of the full-on action cues, the second half of “New Cave” is filled with brass fanfares, choral accents, and spiky string runs, while “Wild Goose Chase” opens with echoes of Jerry Goldsmith in Egyptian/Middle Eastern mode, before emerging into a rapid-fire sequence full of rousing brass and thrilling string runs. “Alejandro and the Rescue” showcases some brilliant rhythmic interplay between sections of brass, tips its proverbial hat to Lost in Space, and finishes with a hint of James Horner and Aliens in the finale. “Let’s Go Find Dora’s Parents” has a purposeful, rebellious tone to it, while “Juice Box Life Force” is a juggernaut of jungle drums, extravagantly chaotic brass, and frantic, aggressive choral outbursts.

Perhaps my choice for the pick of the action cues is “Inca Aqueducts” which is exciting and energetic, with especially potent brass writing that pits different instruments within the brass section against themselves in a variety of bold ways. There are more John Williams influences here too: a quick flash of the love theme from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a brief burst of something from Superman, rhythmic and textural ideas from the Star Wars prequels and sequels, another reference to Born on the Fourth of July in the conclusion. It’s all so much fun, lively and enthralling, the sort of broad action adventure music I have loved for decades.

A couple of standalone cues are also worth noting. Both “Parapata Vista” and “Camino Real de Parapata” are spectacular ‘landscape revelation’ cues that allow the concept of the lost city of Parapata to take on a near-religious quality. Debney and Franco use the Quechua vocals in a way that suggests power and mystery, and explosions of festive brass that speak to the epic scope of the locale. Elsewhere, “Vision Quest” is an abstract, dream-like piece that uses impressively avant-garde orchestral textures and odd instrumental phrasing to make it sound intentionally unsettling. These combine with Indian raga sounds, an upbeat dance-like sequence, and some references to the most dissonant parts of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to make it one of the most interesting cues in the score.

The finale of the score offers two more truly superb action sequences in “Lost Guardian of Parapata” and “He Has Angered the Gods,” as well as the score’s true emotional high point in “Show Me the Correct Path”. The cue starts slowly, with trepidation, perhaps feeling a little defeated; however, as the cue slowly builds the strings, the harp, the choir, and the woodwinds slowly become larger, grander, warmer, and more deeply emotional, until eventually a stirring brass theme accented with tubular bells emerges at the 1:40 mark. The rest of the cue is just magnificent – fans of similar Debney cues from scores like Dragonfly (“Emily’s Message Revealed”), The Passion of the Christ (“Mary Goes to Jesus”), or The Jungle Book (“Elephant Waterfall”) will be overjoyed at the return to that sound and that level of emotional resonance. Everything finishes on a friendly and happy note in “Need to Explore High School” before the conclusive “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” presents an instrumental version of the classic Dora TV theme filled with infectious mambo-Caribbean rhythms and an especially fabulous trumpet solo.

As I mentioned earlier, the lack of a truly front-and-center obvious main theme may be something of a disappointment to some people. Some may also find the music to be at times a little un-focused; Debney and Franco do have a tendency to quickly jump around from style-to-style within the same cue, which sometimes can give the score a slightly scattershot, mickey-mousey feel, although my personal opinion is that it’s significantly less of a problem here than it would have been in the hands of less skilled composers. I can also foresee some people criticizing Debney and Franco for relying on the compositional style of John Williams a little too heavily; it’s true that the stylistics of Williams are all over the score, but my understanding is that this was an intentional homage to the Raiders of the Lost Ark/Indiana Jones style rather than anything more nefarious, and I personally feel that they managed the homages with the best levels of appropriateness.

Despite its childish origins, Dora and the Lost City of Gold turns out to be a mature, intelligent, musically stimulating action-adventure score that will appeal to anyone who has an affinity for the broad orchestral strokes that have historically typified this genre. John Debney’s bold and engaging action writing combines beautifully with Germaine Franco’s deep knowledge of and affinity for indigenous musical cultures, resulting in an overall experience that satisfies the intellect and touches the emotions in equal measure. So grab your backpack, and jump in – vamonos! Debney and Franco are leading the way!

Buy the Dora and the Lost City of Gold soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Dora the Explorer Theme Song (written by Billy Straus, Sarah Durkee, and Josh Sitron, performed by Francesca Ramirez) (1:39)
  • The Legend of Parapata (0:55)
  • Mad Because You Are Leaving (1:08)
  • 10 Years Later (0:53)
  • Angry Pygmy (1:18)
  • New Cave (1:53)
  • And You Are Not Going (1:51)
  • First Day of School (0:39)
  • Making Friends (0:46)
  • Am I a Weirdo (2:23)
  • Wild Goose Chase (2:11)
  • Interloper Kidnapped (1:38)
  • Alejandro and the Rescue (2:41)
  • Let’s Go Find Dora’s Parents (1:08)
  • She Knows This Monkey (1:43)
  • Juice Box Life Force (2:07)
  • Opera House (1:06)
  • Quicksand and Scorpions (1:59)
  • I’m Alive (1:08)
  • Someone Lives Here (1:04)
  • Vision Quest (4:42)
  • I Had the Weirdest Dream (3:08)
  • Inca Aqueducts (4:07)
  • I Outwitted You (2:28)
  • Parapata Vista (1:14)
  • You Have Friends Now (1:49)
  • Moon Gate (3:42)
  • Camino Real de Parapata (3:45)
  • Tilting Room (1:31)
  • Alejandro’s Gold (3:03)
  • Lost Guardian of Parapata (2:19)
  • Show Me the Correct Path (2:45)
  • He Has Angered the Gods (2:46)
  • She’s Staring at Us Again (0:40)
  • Swiper, No Swiping (0:32)
  • Helicopter to Reunions (1:01)
  • Need to Explore High School (1:27)
  • Dora and the Lost City of Gold (written by Billy Straus, Sarah Durkee, and Josh Sitron) 1:11)

Running Time: 72 minutes 20 seconds

Paramount Music (2019)

Music composed by John Debney and Germaine Franco. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Edited by John Finklea. Album produced by John Debney and Germaine Franco.

  1. Mark
    August 27, 2019 at 9:25 am

    This is an excellent review of an excellent score. Thank you for writing it!
    The link to purchase is not working now, but is there a way to purchase a physical CD of this score? All I can find online is a digital download. A score like this deserves an actual CD album!
    Please provide any information you may have about this. Thank you!

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