My history with the Carmen Sandiego franchise is a weird one. I absolutely loved Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego video games but I especially loved Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego as you get to interact with historical figures, which was a trip at the time. But, as much as I loved the games, I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan of the series. I also never really watched the Carmen Sandiego game show nor the older animated programs since they never came out in the Philippines. Safe to say, I liked the Carmen Sandiego good enough that Netflix piqued my interest when they announced they were bringing Carmen Sandiego to the 21st century with a whole new animated show featuring the titular gentleman (gentlewoman?) thief.
I decided to plop in my chair and watch the entire 9 episode season on Netflix just to see if it was any good. I will say, right off the bat, I enjoyed it fine but, boy, does this show have problems, especially for someone who enjoyed the early iterations of the character.
Anyway, the Netflix version of Carmen Sandiego has her start out as an aspiring thief and star student of VILE Academy. But when she discovers that VILE does, well, vile acts like… steal valuable stuff (honestly, the name should’ve been a dead giveaway), she escapes and, with the help of Player, a kid computer genius and hacker, and her two assistants, Ivy and Zack, Carmen using her thieving skills to thwart VILE’s evil schemes. All the while, she’s being pursued by ACME (a secret organization trying to prove VILE’s existence), specifically by Detective Chase Devineaux and his assistant, Julia Argent.
I will give it to Netflix that casting Gina Rodriguez as Carmen Sandiego was a brilliant move. While I’m not familiar with her work (never bothered to watch Jane the Virgin), I will say Gina Rodriguez performance as Carmen Sandiego does fit what they were going for. Her performance is still confident but there are times when she needs to be vulnerable and she does a pretty good job of giving that off.
Another good performance comes from The Chief, who runs ACME. While I never watched the Carmen Sandiego game show, I did play the various video games that featured a live action Chief and the voice actress who does The Chief in the Netflix version does a worthy emulation of the voice. Ahh, memories!
Unfortunately, the rest of the voice cast is pretty bad. They range from stereotypical to insulting to just plain uninspired. I really disliked the vocal performances from the guy who played Detective Devineaux and the people who played Zack and Ivy. I get it’s a kids show but do they have to make their accents so stereotypical? I was also very disappointed with Finn Wolfhard’s Player. There are definitely times when it sounds like he’s not even trying!
The animation is a mixed bag but leans towards the bad side. There are some particularly creative scenes, such as the shadow puppet fight in Indonesia and the fight scene between Carmen and Paper Star. Unfortunately, those inspired scenes are few and far between. Most of the time, the show looks like it was animated in the same way that South Park is: very cheap and on a tight budget. I guess this makes the good scenes really stand out but I would’ve wanted it to look consistently good all throughout.
While were on the topic of Carmen Sandiego’s aesthetic, I will say I like it for the most part. At the very least, it suits the rather cheap looking animation. However, I have a major issue with most of the character designs! Carmen Sandiego is obviously the best designed in the show as she’s given an updated look and she’s doesn’t have to just dress in the fashionably iconic red trenchcoat and hat all the time. I also do like Paper Star and Tigress’ look. But everyone else, yuch! The rest are all bland and boring! Besides Carmen, Tigress and Paper Star, everyone else were never given any real standout appearances. The worst are El Topo and La Chevre. While they’re supposed to have some fantastic abilities, you’d never know what they are by looking at them! They just look so ordinary!
As the Carmen Sandiego games were meant to teach geography to little kids, the show also adds some of those little education tidbits in the show, which I do appreciate. I also have to hand it to Netflix for actually trying to create an overarching story, which is something that’s sorely missing from the games and the television programs. Some of the episodes are cleverly written, like VILE’s plan to steal valuable paintings and leave remarkable forgeries and the hunt for a stamp that’s hidden in various places.
Unfortunately, the creation of an overarching story created my biggest issue I have with Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego. And that issue is… Carmen Sandiego herself. Rather, it’s her backstory. One thing I really liked about the anti-hero in the games is her motivation for stealing outlandish stuff, like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower. How she steals things those large is part of the charm. However, the best thing about the thefts is why she bothers stealing them in the first place: she just wants the challenge.
I’m not the biggest Carmen Sandiego buff but I read a long time ago that Carmen Sandiego was the youngest and best detective of ACME. But solving crimes just getting too boring for her. So, instead, she decided to create VILE and start planning elaborate crimes just for the heck of it. She may be a thief but she’s a thief with a moral code. She wants the challenge of eluding ACME so she would even intentionally leave clues at the crime scene. These are actually really brilliant and creative character traits that made Carmen Sandiego better that just your one-of-the mill maid villains. Of course, Netflix had to change it so Carmen is now the hero and is stealing back the stuff VILE stole. It’s fine for kids but it lack the edge that made Carmen Sandiego the character that made her such an intriguing character.
With that being said, however, it’s hard for me to be too hard on the Netflix version of Carmen Sandiego. When all is said and done, this is supposed to be a kid’s show. It’ll be kind of evil of me to review it with an adult mindset; it’s not supposed to be for grownups. I can’t really say that a more “adult” Carmen Sandiego would be a terrible idea but that’s not what we have here. I do wish there was a little more here for the people who actually played the games or watched the shows during the ’90s. We’ve grown up now and we want a little more compelling stories and characters.
But Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego is decidedly for kids and, as a kid’s show, it’s totally serviceable.
Have you seen Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments section below!