Netflix reboots have been successful and well regarded for the most part. Along with this, the streaming service’s animation department is hitting it out of the park pretty consistently – covering child oriented, adult themed and family friendly content widely and with plenty of options to suit everyone. Combining these two elements has proven to be a great formula in the past with the likes of She-Ra and Voltron and now we have a fresh start for the Carmen Sandiego franchise. This may appear at a glance to be another kid aimed spy show. Yet it proves itself as a fun show regardless of the viewers age.
Carmen Sandiego started as an educational video game series, eventually spawning a geography and history themed game show and later a mid-90s cartoon. The big change between these and the reboot is Carmen is more of a vigilante anti-hero here when she’s usually a villain.
Carmen used to be a clear baddie who would steal an increasing array of valuables from gems, to monuments like the statue of liberty and even once going back in time to steal languages…really. Doing so for the sheer challenge and thrill, she’d leave clues for these hauls to later be found by the secret agents at ACME – seeing the whole ordeal as a game.
Now Carmen is a thief who steals from other thieves (think Sly Cooper), ultimately doing so to stop the evil organisation V.I.L.E. of which she was once a part. This doesn’t take away from the show’s identity though. It’s the classic episodic spy thriller but with no alternate identity for the main character. While Kim Possible still had to go to school, Carmen is always on the job so there’s rarely a secondary plot to share screen time with the main story, giving the show a tight focus.
The series starts off with a bang. A two-part origin story showing Carmen growing up within V.I.L.E. honing her skills as a thief to eventually become the Carmen Sandiego headlines would know her as. These episodes set up the world, characters and their goals very well in an engrossing opening that may kickstart the show too well for it to follow up.
The following two entries are the shows weakest of its nine-episode run, possibly because it’s a bit jarring when it becomes more light-hearted and episodic. Keeping to its educational roots, the show relays some fun facts about the country Carmen is travelling to. Not to say these aren’t somewhat interesting facts. It’s just a bit strange for the episode to stop and spout trivia about these places in a very stilted way.
The voice acting is well done with Gina Rodriguez (Annihilation, Jane the Virgin) as Carmen and Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things, It) as her hacker and intelligence guy, Player. The pair only stumble at these trivia sections when they come across very stiff, losing the natural flow of conversation the series has built otherwise.
Sadly, that’s not the series only fault. Carmen has two more sidekicks when out in the field, Zack and Ivy – two Boston twins that are the worst part of the show by far. Never mind that their voices are annoying as their accents are a bit too much. Zack is the worst of the two having a lot of jokes that just fall flat. Instead of grabbing my sides, I was rolling my eyes. Their issues can be broken down into two fundamental flaws.
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First and foremost. They come out of nowhere with no backstory, introduction or natural inclusion into the series. Episode three opens and they’re just…there. If Carmen spent the first two episodes explaining how she got to where she is now via a flashback, why did she completely skip over where these two came from? This is the main reason the next few episodes are pretty jarring. Every time these two showed up I was waiting for them to give a single ounce of context as to who the hell they were but that explanation never came.
The second issue is that they don’t feel needed. They don’t assist Carmen on every mission but even when they do they are not important as we’re shown in other episodes that Carmen is perfectly capable of handling these missions on her own. One time, Zack acts a driver for a chase scene and Ivy…never does much that Carmen couldn’t have. That’s about it for unique skills.
They more so act as an extra set of hands to probably cut down the run time instead of making Carmen do everything. They were in the original 90s show. But since Carmen was a villain she wasn’t paired with them. So it feels like they’re only here because they were in the original.
Hopefully they’re fleshed out in further seasons but as it stands, the episodes without them or minimally featuring them are the best ones. The other side characters from V.I.L.E. are fun but some could’ve used more screen time as they are very bland but they’re serviceable.
Back into positives, Carmen Sandiego is an outright gorgeous looking show. The animation is super stylish and slick. Radiant little touches like dust particles in the air or light glistening in the water contrast beautifully with the smooth characters. The lighting as a whole really makes the show pop. Its opening credits are so bold and stylised Netflix should remove the skip intro button. Anytime the beginning automatically skipped I rewound back to it. No matter how you shake it, Carmen Sandiego is one of the best looking and uniquely styled cartoons airing today.
Despite some minor flaws and the jarring changes after the opening episodes, Carmen Sandiego is a fun and thrilling globetrotting spy adventure series that is screaming with potential for overarching stories and character development to hopefully reach the peak it set in its opening episodes and finale.
As the series goes on it has room to grow into something truly special but for now it’s still a very good show that is definitely worth checking out. If you were previously a fan of the franchise it’s tricky to say if you’ll appreciate the changes. If you think Carmen has to be a villain it might not be up your alley. However, it’s still worth a shot if you are open to something new. As a beginner to the franchise myself, it acted a great gateway to the world of The Crimson Shadow.