Netflix's newest iteration of famous international thief Carmen Sandiego seems geared towards a younger audience, but overall it's an enjoyable children's cartoon that's relatively clever and not too cringe-worthy for us adults. With a cast of colorful and quirky allies and enemies, Carmen Sandiego delivers a Totally Spies vibe when it comes to the action and a Kim Possible-like feel.
Perhaps the biggest change in this version is Carmen's (Gina Rodriguez) character: she's now a young adult who was taken in as a child and raised by VILE, where she was trained as a thief. After being slighted by the organization, Carmen turns "white hat" and focuses her efforts on taking down VILE–one exotic location at a time.
The educational component is a little overt and bland – there was an attempt to stylize it, but it just seems like a heavy handed encyclopedia information dump. The show would benefit greatly from doing without the segment and letting the information speak through the story itself.
The first two episodes explain her back-story and lend context to all the villains we will meet in subsequent episodes. Subsequent episodes are centered around a specific location Carmen must visit to secure a certain artifact to stop VILE from exploiting it. This is where the educational "eat your vegetables" exhibition part comes in. Whenever Carmen is in a new place, she and Player (Finn Wolfhard) swap facts and some light witty banter and puns about whatever city they happen to be in that week.
After that, it's back to the story–which does get progressively less juvenile as the 9-episode season goes on. High points include Gray (Michael Goldsmith), a guy who was in VILE Academy with Carmen and was like an older brother to her. His story turns tragic when he can't stop Carmen on a heist and gets punished by VILE by having his mind wiped with no memory of anything VILE–Carmen included.
The voice acting is great, the relationships and core conflict between the characters feel real, and the stories are even well done for an animated children's show–but where it fails is in the details. This is clearest in the tone, which frequently flips between high-energy and exciting fight sequences, then flips to a dull educational info-dump.
The narrative and styling are fine, but for the subject and educational level it's on, the tone is too young and overly patronizing for the 8-12 age range. It currently feels like it's geared towards the 4-8 year-old age set at best.
As a long-time fan of Carmen Sandiego and learning about world cultures, this show was fun enough. It wasn't great, and certainly not on par with other non-educational cartoons in its demographic like The Loud House and Duck Tales, or even more socially-conscious cartoons like Steven Universe or Arthur.
At best, I would put this on par with the 2000's era PBS Kids show Cyber-Chase. Good concept with some great talent attached but at the end of the day, it feels very young and is underwhelming overall.
For a children's show, it's not terrible: hopefully, kids can have a love for world cultures and locales sparked and it can be used as a starting point for learning geography and cultural anthropology. With as far as children's edu-tainment has come in the past three decades, Netflix's Carmen Sandiego can definitely do better.
"But Adriel! You're an adult watching this! Kids are different!"
So right you are, vocal reader! Even if we disregard the educational aspect of it, as pure entertainment it's lacking. At the heart of it, the stories are the equivalent of Law and Order for the "Under 10" set: they're for people who want to feel like they're following plot and learning how the world works, but really they're zoning out to a show with very little character development that's lacking in dynamic stories.
There's a plot, but it's basically empty calories. It's very Pink Panther reminiscent in that aspect, with the heist of the episode going on and the bumbling inspector. The only difference is that this inspector falls into the children's sitcom trope of "clueless adults"–which is a less than stellar archetype to put in a show aimed at children whose lives consist on listening to and trusting adults and trusting them.
I look forward to seeing the reception for this show as time goes on, but more important, I think it's about time Netflix got into the children's show game. As they branch out and prioritize original content, it will be fascinating to see if Carmen Sandiego gets a second season order, especially with a season-ender meant for future stories.