Review: Netflix's 'Carmen Sandiego' Is a Thoughtful, Action-Packed Home Run

Just about everyone loves the Mission: Impossible franchise, right? A globe-trotting adventure that features an impossibly likable star, an exciting supporting cast, thrilling chase sequences, and some of the most beautiful backdrops on the planet; what's not to love? Now, imagine taking this perfect action-adventure formula and using it to create an animated kids TV series. It sounds like a bit of a gamble, but that's exactly what Netflix has done with its upcoming reboot of Carmen Sandiego, and it's an instant hit.

Carmen Sandiego tells the story of a young woman named, you guessed it, Carmen Sandiego, voiced by Jane the Virgin's Gina Rodriguez. As an orphan, Carmen was taken in and raised by a school for professional thieves. As she got older, Carmen learned that the school was actually an organization of super-villains called V.I.L.E., and that she and her classmates were being taught to become villains themselves. So she decided to escape and take things into her own hands. With the help of a young but brilliant hacker named Player (Finn Wolfhard), Carmen now uses everything she was taught in school to stop V.I.L.E., travelling around the globe to steal things back from the villains, foiling their plans every chance she gets.

Right out of the gate, Carmen Sandiego comes out swinging with the wit and charm of Rodriguez's titular heroine. She's one of those animated characters that's simply impossible not to love. Part of that is due to the wonderful ways in which she's written and empowered, but so much has to do with the sincerity and fun that Rodriguez brings to the role. Both she and Wolfhard knock it out of the park, as do the other performers that guest star and recur on the series.

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(Photo: Netflix)

Unlike several of the most popular animated shows available today, Carmen Sandiego embraces an approach of realism that makes it all the more enjoyable. Rather than using animation to bring mystical creatures to life, or take the lead characters to other realms and planets, this series captures the beauty, and often times the absurdity, of the real world. Sure, some of the scenarios that Carmen finds herself in are a bit extraordinary, but they are always rooted in reality, which goes a long way towards setting the series apart. It also gives several opportunities to challenge young viewers mentally, and teach them about the world today.

Since Carmen takes place in the here and now, the show is able to bring actual issues into the fold without hiding them beneath fantasy. Each case that Carmen takes on has something brilliant to teach without ever feeling like it's trying too hard to teach it. For example, in the third episode, Carmen and her team are trying to stop V.I.L.E. from poisoning the rice paddies in an Asian country so they can manufacture their own fake rice and sell it for an enormous profit. Not only does this give the characters in the series real stakes (and a massive change of pace from the over-used "stop the world from ending" scenario), but it teaches its younger viewers about real-life problems, and real-life villains.

This is where Carmen Sandiego really excels. So much of the show, as well as its leading characters, exist within shades of gray. There are bad people doing bad things, and they are easy to point out. But Carmen is often times doing "bad" things too. She breaks into places she isn't supposed to go, and takes things that don't belong to her, but for just and admirable reasons. There's an inspector that sometimes acts as an antagonist to Carmen, trying his hardest to stop her because that's his job, and he doesn't realize what she's actually trying to accomplish. Many of these characters are doing both the right and wrong things at the same time, which creates an opportunity for amazing dialogue between children and their parents.

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(Photo: Netflix)

Speaking of opportunity, it would be difficult to talk about Carmen Sandiego without bringing up the brilliance of its representation. From Carmen herself, to the heads of secret agencies, to the inspector's brilliant assistant, every woman on this show kicks ass, no two ways about it. And the best part about it is, nobody ever doubts or questions it. When Carmen does something amazing, people aren't shocked by a woman accomplishing these feats, they simply understand that she rocks and of course she does amazing things. The inspector, while he's often an imbecile, actively listens to, takes the advice of, and shows respect to his assistant, because that's just what he's supposed to do. The series gives young girls some impeccable role models to look up to, but it also gives boys a chance to see what equality and respect truly look like.

Carmen Sandiego is a fantastic balancing act of a series. It's action-packed, educational, and downright fun the majority of the time. There are a ton of characters to love, but it never feels as though the roster is too over-crowded for kids to get lost with what's going on. And if you're a parent that gets roped into watching cartoons with your children, this show will quickly prove to be a blessing in disguise. It's made for young people, but it's in no way silly, and packs an emotional punch when necessary, so you'll often times enjoy it just as much as the kids do. There's genuinely something for everyone here, making Carmen Sandiego yet another animated home run for Netflix.

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The first season of Carmen Sandiego is set to arrive on Netflix on Friday, January 18th.

Rating: 5 out of 5