‘Carmen Sandiego’ Review: Netflix’s New Series Focuses on Fashion over Facts

     January 14, 2019

carmen-sandiego-netflix-series-reviewBack in 1985, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, an educational computer game from Brøderbund Software, introduced children and parents around the world to the title villainess, a notorious thief with a penchant for wearing red. Armed with only their wits and an almanac* packed full of wacky facts (*think of it like Wikipedia, just all typed out in a good old-fashioned book), players, a.k.a. Junior Detectives, pieced clues together in order to track down various punny-named henchmen in their quest to bring down Carmen Sandiego, the leader of the V.I.L.E. criminal organization. The successful franchise launch was but the first of many re-releases, sequel games and titles, and other adaptations to come, like live-action game shows and animated series.

This Friday, the Netflix Original Series Carmen Sandiego, will bring the fashionable filcher back into the spotlight in an intriguing new way. While the title thief had long been the ever-escaping wild goose that led the ACME Detective Agents on a chase around the world, she’ll now have an extra wrinkle to her character, along with a fully formed backstory that viewers young and old will get to experience together for the first time. It’s a smart, contemporary update to the classic character, one that takes her from chic sneak-thief to a fanciful Robin Hood-like figure, buoyed by a rich performance from Gina Rodriguez that makes this new Carmen instantly likeable and relatable.

If you were wondering if the new show would include that iconic theme song, originally sung by Rockapella in the 90s, I have some good news and some better news. The new theme song, written by Jared Lee Gosselin and sung by Raquel Castro, was recently unveiled and we have it to share with you below. The better news is that the original song can indeed be heard in the new episodes, but you’ll have to keep an ear tuned for it.

First of all, check out the new theme song for Carmen Sandiego, followed by our full review:

Everybody asks “WHERE is Carmen Sandiego?” but nobody asks “WHO is Carmen Sandiego?” The iconic woman in red returns for new international capers and a peek into her past. Featuring Gina Rodriguez as Carmen and Finn Wolfhard as Player, Carmen Sandiego infiltrates Netflix on January 18!

I’ve been excited by the idea of a new Carmen Sandiego for quite some time; it’s long been a title I thought was overdue for a modern adaptation. So I was an easy sell for this new version. It’s colorful, crisp animation moves at a good clip, allowing for fun action/heist sequences but also taking time to let emotional character beats sink in. Many of the characters are being introduced here for the first time, including this new take on Carmen’s own origin story and her mysterious background, so luckily they’re all uniquely drawn, fleshed-out, and expertly paired with their voice-actor counterparts. But while Carmen Sandiego does include a brief info-dump loosely tied to the episode’s plot, the series’ action, intrigue, and title heroine’s story take precedent to any real educational content throughout.

The crux of the new Carmen Sandiego series’ plot is similar to that of the entire franchise: ACME Detectives and other law enforcement agents are tasked with apprehending the infamous woman in red who’s been pulling off high-profile heists all over the world. It’s the storytelling focus that’s shifted this time. Rather than spend time getting to know the “good guys” as they work the case, viewers follow Carmen herself and her various partners in crime. And the show doesn’t just throw audiences into the deep end and expect them to sympathize with a thief, no matter how posh the pickpocket: The first two episodes are actually an hour-long origin story framed within Carmen’s latest heist.

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Image via Netflix

This origin story, without going into too much detail, teases the mysterious national and parental origins of Carmen herself. She has no memory of parents, of a homeland, or even of her real name. As a child, she was adopted by ne’er-do-wells at the VILE Academy, and it’s there that young Carmen hones her skills, attempts to make friends, and eventually finds herself on the path that leads her to become an infamous international thief. It’s a solid little intro story that subverts the previously accepted idea of Carmen Sandiego and fleshes out the bones of the character, adding dimensions and giving viewers a reason to care about her exploits. They’ll also learn the origin of Carmen’s moniker, her reasons for thievin’, and just where she got that fashionable outfit.

Of course, Carmen rarely acts completely alone. She’s helped out in this version of the story by her fellow classmates at VILE Academy and by a mysterious white hat hacker by the name of Player (Finn Wolfhard). Player acts as both a conduit and a grounding point for Carmen to the world outside VILE, the real world, as far as we know it. But when Carmen’s VILE friends start to take their criminal career a little too seriously, her loyalties end up being tested in all sorts of ways. (Testing my patience, however, is a pair of Boston siblings who act as Carmen’s henchmen and whose over-the-top accents might just drive you to a life of crime.)

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Image via Netflix

It’s tough to judge Carmen Sandiego too harshly or too generously this early on. There’s certainly plenty of action and emotionally charged drama to enjoy, and the fact that Carmen is now more Robin Hood than robbin’ hood goes a long way towards improving her image as an icon, especially for girls and people of color who might prefer Carmen to have a better rep. It’s a bit unfortunate that the educational material is thrown at kids in an expositional lump rather than being threaded throughout the plot of the story itself to make it more meaningful, but that’s clearly not the intention here, for better or worse. Carmen Sandiego has a long way to go to earn our trust, but she’s off to a stylish start.

Review: ★★★ Good

Starring Gina Rodriguez as Carmen Sandiego, with Finn Wolfhard as Player, Abby Trott as Ivy, Michael Hawley as Zack, Michael Goldsmith as Gray/Crackle, Kari Wahlgren as Sheena/Tigress, Sharon Muthu as Dr. Bellum and Agent Zari, Rafael Petardi as Chase Devineaux, Charlet Chung as Julia Argent, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn as Coach Brunt, Paul Nakauchi as Shadowsan, Toks Olagundoye as Countess Cleo, Andrew Pifko as Antonio/El Topo, Bernardo De Paula as Jean Paul/Le Chevre, Rita Moreno (who voiced the original Carmen Sandeigo in the animated series) as Cookie Booker, and Liam O’Brien as Professor Maelstrom and the Cleaners, Vlad and Boris, Carmen Sandiego arrives on Netflix to stream starting Friday, January 18th.

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Image via Netflix

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