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Carmen Sandiego review: Crime School of Thought

By Barry Neenan

And so we close out my (at time of writing) trilogy of reviews of Netflix cartoons starring spirited young women. After finishing She-Ra, I was honestly surprised to find many structural similarities to it in the new Carmen Sandiego reboot. The trailers had already informed me that Carmen had been given a moral makeover, placing her more firmly in the ‘spirited’ camp. But young, too? The Carmen I grew up was definitely an adult. Here, she’s barely out of Crime School.

…Yyyyyeah. Remember how I said your enjoyment of She-Ra would come down to how well you could process the words “queen of the princesses”? The analogue here is undoubtedly “Crime School”.

We open – almost radically – with an actual origin story for the elusive Carmen Sandiego. She was raised by a cabal of thieves on a secret island, taught from a young age that crime is a game to be won. When she finally comes of age, she enrolls in the island’s Crime School – nope, not getting used to typing that – and trains in the art of theft before escaping out into the wider world. It’s an interesting setup I am forced to report the show immediately ruins.

I would be very on board for a cartoon about a woman doing cool heists, regardless of the targets. Having her target other, nastier criminals is an acceptable way of making the series more morally palatable. After all, that worked for Sly Cooper, my all-time favourite thing. But it’s important to note that was enough for Sly Cooper. ‘Sly is a fun thief who steals from un-fun thieves’ was all the moral justification the audience needed. Carmen Sandiego tries so hard to justify its premise the whole thing almost falls apart.

Carmen actually fails Crime School, and with some early hints that it’s because she’s too kind-hearted; that her superiors need someone cruel and ruthless, and for all her undeniable skill, that isn’t her. That would have sufficed. Instead, there’s a scene where the higher-ups of the thief organisation, named VILE – fucking VILE – reveal that the acronym does not stand for ‘Valuable Imports, Lavish Exports’, but, in fact, ‘Villain’s International League of Evil’. It all feels very unnecessary. As much as I love theft, it’s not inherently a cool and fun thing. (Hot take, I know.) Carmen could have rebelled because VILE is cold and uncaring rather than cartoonishly evil. A group of amoral thieves, rather than explicitly, self-described villainous thieves, would have worked just as well. Better, even. I don’t mean to fixate on one point, but the show very nearly lost me as a viewer there.

But it’s not all bad in that respect. Much like She-Ra, this show demonstrates a knack for reinventing an absurd series to be at least a little more sensible. Carmen’s flashy style of crime actually ties into her vendetta against VILE; by peacocking around in her stylish red ensemble, she’s purposefully attracting law enforcement attention not just to herself, but her chosen targets. As she makes her daring escape, the cops shut down another VILE operation. It’s a remarkably deft reworking of a character designed to be found and stopped by literal children.

Speaking of, Carmen Sandiego’s educational roots are also given a nod. Whenever her team arrives in a new place, they end up saying geography trivia at each other the way normal humans totally do. While not perfect, these mini-lessons aren’t as dry as you might fear – mostly because the writers actually work in these facts to the episode itself, either as a plot point, a joke, or both. That’s a very welcome touch.

But no matter how smoothly it’s implemented, this is still a show which will try to explain things like ‘the Magna Carta’ and ‘the Outback’ and ‘rice’ to you. So is it too kid-focused to rank among all-ages greats like Gravity Falls or Steven Universe, or even the newcomers like Hilda? Yes and no.

Things are generally pretty tame, but this show certainly isn’t without its wit – or an edge. Although lighter than I was hoping, there’s still enough of a kick here to keep me interested. I still find the exact good versus evil dynamic kinda laughable, but Carmen’s specific point of departure from her roots is seeing her best friend trying to kill a civilian in cold blood. Said best friend then undergoes an arc that… well, it’s interesting material for Season One of a kid’s show, if nothing else. The final episode also gets pretty dark, and even drops a nice revelation on the way.

There’s a couple novel approaches here, considering how easy it would have been to just repeat the usual tropes. Player, Carmen’s Guy-In-The-Chair, is an actual teenager. His young age isn’t really emphasised or joked about; it’s just not implausible that a talented hacker would be under twenty. The fact his handle is ‘Player’ – as in the player – is also a subtle, fun nod to how this series began life as a video game that directly spoke to the kids playing it.

I also feel compelled to mention Chase Devineaux, the man determined to bring Carmen to justice. Often, this character is noble, gaining audience respect even as their motivations inherently conflict with the protagonist. The Koichi Zenigatas and Carmelita Foxes of the world are likeable in their own right – hell, even Javert has his own rigid honour. Not Devineaux. He’s an arrogant, self-obsessed, reckless idiot, constantly disregarding the entirely correct deductions of his younger partner Julia. And it works? I find him entertaining, and that’s the important thing.

The artstyle fits nicely, bringing colour and stylisation that perfectly matches the vibe. It’s nothing breathtaking, sometimes looking a little stilted. But I’d say it does its job well. I don’t mean to keep cyberbullying Dragon Prince, but there was a Netflix cartoon that overextended itself on animation budget and ended up looking unappealing despite its effective character design. Carmen Sandiego is more canny, aiming lower and hitting its target with panache. The animation here won’t change your life, but it delivers the story as intended. If future seasons have a higher budget, that’d be wonderful. But the charm here is in the colour and angles, not necessarily any impressive, sweeping moments.

The casting should also be commended. Gina Rodriguez brings life to the lead role, suave throughout even when saddled with educational exposition. Player is voiced by none other than the excellent Finn Wolfhard, famous for Stranger Things, IT, and – most prominently – playing video games with an oddly similar-looking man thrice his age. While these two get the highest billing, there isn’t a voice out of place in the show. Liam O’Brien’s performance as Professor Maelstrom is a personal favourite, dripping with exactly as much oily villainy a show like this deserves.

If (like me) you’re a big fan of the heist genre, I’d recommend checking this out. At nine episodes, it’s a breezy watch. If you’re looking for something darker, the child-friendliness might turn you off. But it knows what it’s doing, and builds up some interesting dynamics along the way. And hey, if nothing else, you’ll come out of it knowing slightly more about Indonesia.

Fun if sanitised reboot of classic crime character

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