Like many kids at that time, I didn’t need much of an introduction to Carmen Sandiego as a character. I had grown up playing the computer games at school and absolutely loving her game show, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego (1991). The idea of an animated series of adventures, focusing more on the action and characters, was a huge draw, and Fox Kids made that a reality in 1994 as a part of the network wanting to meet the Children’s Television Act, which required all major stations to broadcast educational programming for at least three hours, and the original parent company that owned the IP, Broderbund Software, had to approve each script ahead of time to make sure it was suitable and living up to the franchise standards. With these restrictions and the required focus on education, it would have been easy for kids to lose interest in this show quickly, but this is a cartoon that stuck with me and many others throughout the years.
“The world’s greatest thief is on the loose, and it’s up to you to find her!”
Like the previously mentioned shows, Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego helped teach me a lot of little facts and some geography for sure, which I royally suck at. The show even tests its viewers during commercial breaks to see who was paying attention. This aspect of the Saturday morning experience is only overkill now and again, but facts are packed into throwaway lines and are all over the place at times as the characters will discuss the number of canals in Holland to how big the Saharah is all in episode one. The C5 Corridor, their teleporter, is used to dump the most trivia, though locations change in a neat way, and even real clips from history or live performances pop up at times. The clues however are certainly not always as straightforward, often being more of a play on words, and I still have trouble with some of those. The show manages to discuss a lot of different cultures, go to various places, and even uses several foreign languages.
Where on Earth takes most of its inspiration from the game show, while still using some imagery and borrowing a few ideas from the video game titles, but it seems to be in a standalone alternate world where there is a player who tries to capture master class thief Carmen Sandiego in a simulated reality by using digital detectives and every resource the ACME crime prevention agency can muster. The ‘player’ is the only real life actor, a kid at a computer who clashes wits with Carmen. The first several episodes have the same individual in that role, but this changes frequently after that, going back and forth between several different kids. This change also came with some small aesthetic improvements to the graphics and credits as well.
The main two protagonists are a young sibling team: Ivy, the athletic, combat trained, vehicle expert who hates being called ‘Sis,’ and her little brother Zack, who is a master with technology and knows a slew of different languages. They aren’t just well-equipped to catch crooks, but almost seem too smart at times, escaping traps with ease and just barely failing to capture the titular character often. These two work with many other agents from all across the Earth who are experts in different fields, making the world feel more populated and reminding me of the game show. The agency is run by a computerized program called Chief, who is an advanced AI that takes up the role of comedic relief for the most part, with many comparing him to the Genie from Aladdin and a kookier Max Headroom, as he overreacts to every event and uses Chibi animations to explain things.
“Think out your plan like a woman of action, then act out your plan like a woman of thought.”
Carmen Sandiego herself is a jack-of-all-trades while being a master of preparation and quick on her feet with athleticism and intellect. She runs a large criminal organization called V.I.L.E. (Villain’s International League of Evil), which seems misnamed in this show. Zack even comments how Carmen is a ‘crook with class,’ who never uses weapons to harm and saves both of the detectives on multiple occasions. She incorporates many henchmen with horrible names, like Page Turner, who commits crimes based off novels, or the two motorcycle baddies named Papa Wheelie and Iggy Nition, and even music-based villains who are called Claire E. Net and a computer specialist, Dee Cryption. There is a big reveal in this show, bringing to light that Carmen is a former ACME detective herself who needed more of a challenge. This and her being an orphan are two things that stuck in the franchise even after the show ended. The writers tried to give her even more backstory towards the end, revealing someone that may have possibly been her father, making the audience almost sympathize with the crook, but by that point in the series, Carmen has teamed with Zack and Ivy multiple times to take down worse criminals. The other aspect of the crook that this show nailed was her crimes, how she stole things, and the various gadgets and vehicles she incorporates. The world this show takes place in is much more advanced, even by today’s standards, but the high-tech toys are fun and interesting. One of my favorite episodes is actually when Carmen is challenged to commit a crime without all of her advanced technologies.
The characters are fun but much of that comes from an incredible voice cast. Ivy is played by Jennifer Hale (Mass Effect, Spider-Man, Powerpuff Girls) and Carmen herself is brought to life by an EGOT awarded actress, Rita Moreno (The Electric Company, Oz). Two women with extensive resumes playing badass female characters with some depth in a 90s kids cartoon. Zack is voiced by Scott Menville (Teen Titans, Captain Planet and the Planeteers), who is a familiar voice that brings excitement and youth to the show, along with some weird phrases, and the Chief, Roger Bumpass (Invader Zim, The Real Ghostbusters) who gets to flex some range going from sad to crazy.
“The worst part about being really good at something…is that someone’s always coming along trying to prove that they’re better at what you do.”
The animation is nice and smooth for the most part, though some of the coloring makes it look a bit older than it actually is in some scenes. This may be due to some of the earlier episodes having been done quickly or cost-cutting efforts, but many of the action scenes make up for it with solid chase sequences. The work done on the intro though really showcases how good the episodes could look with some wonderful shots and effects, but it’s that almost ridiculously sung theme that seals the whole package together. It is a slightly altered version of Mozart’s Singt dem grossen Bassa Lieder, which fits the show perfectly, with two singers giving it their all on top, which ALMOST compares to Rockapella’s original tune from the game show. The background music is also good, and one of the main pieces has a slower version for more serious moments.
The writing was certainly witty at points and good at working to fit in much of the educational parts, but it was also very formulaic in the beginning. This changes up before that becomes too annoying though, as the writers began to throw in several multi-part episodes, and literally turned their formula upside down or reversed it in some cases. The best example of this is where Carmen goes into the future and becomes a heroic detective, while the authorities think Zack and Ivy are the criminals. The show doesn’t end on a cliffhanger per say, but shows how much potential future stories could have had.
With forty episodes total I missed a few on the original run, like many viewers did, because it switched to Fox Family and then later Pax, as well as season four having a long hiatus while the network decided if they wanted to keep it going. There was an episode that involved the Titanic, which aired around the same time of the film’s release, possibly being the reason why the show had a boost in the ratings. It made an impact though, winning a Daytime Emmy Award for outstanding children’s animation and receiving several different releases on VHS and DVD, but the version I have containing all the episodes is readily available now for a reasonable price. My copy also came with two bonus shows, an episode of something called Liberty’s Kids and a version of The Secret Garden. The franchise is still alive and well too, as a new video game was released as recently as 2015 and Netflix has discussed a live action show that I am very interested in.
This was a fun revisit, not just for the nostalgia, but a chance to share some information about a show that was a big part of a franchise I think some people overlook for being educational or take as being just geared towards kids.
For now though, it’s on to the next project, so “See you next crime.”