One of the best things about relatively new players, such as Netflix, getting into the original animation game is how much likelier it makes it that, when you turn on any new animated series at random, you’ll be met with a totally unique visual language. Sure, many of Netflix’s best animated originals—Voltron: Legendary Defender, The Dragon Prince, Disenchantment—share huge swathes of their visual DNA with widely beloved series from more established cartooners, but plenty of others—BoJack Horseman, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Aggretsuko—have forged rich, idiosyncratic paths all their own.
With all its soft crayon textures, sharp angles, and cool, layered lighting—which somehow manages to propel any given scene forward even as it washes everything monochromatic— consider Netflix’s newest animated series, Carmen Sandiego, an official path-forger. It is lovely to look at. It’s also refreshingly laid back in its pacing, despite the thrill built into its premise. Not that I think you don’t believe me, but to get a sense of how lovely and how laid back it is, just take look at its slick, noir-ish title sequence. Designed by Chromosphere and set to a propulsively minimal track composed by Jared Lee Gosselin and performed by Raquel Castro, the sequence is all moody and granular grays on grays on grays, Carmen Sandiego’s signature scarlet coat and hat the only spark of color in a black-and-white world she’s got in the palm (pilot) of her hand:
I mean, I’m first in line to lament the loss of Rockapella doo-wopping through the cartoony back alley soundstage of PBS’ Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, but damn, that’s a title sequence that knows what it’s about.
And what is it about? Well, forget the villainous Carmen Sandiego you might know from your PBS-loving, geography-buff youth. Brought to animated life in part by star Gina Rodriguez’s I Can and I Will Productions, Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego reimagines the mysterious, globetrotting superthief as a red-coated White Hat, a chic Robin Hood who’s fashioned herself into a thief who only steals from other thieves. Or, more specifically, a thief who only steals from the thieving supervillains of the mysterious (but very evil) VILE organization. In this telling, it is in the halls of VILE’s secretive, island-bound school for thieves that an orphaned Carmen (Rodriguez) grew up, with no connection to the outside world save the mishmash of languages and sneaky skills her culturally diverse guardians taught her, and the voice of the white-hat hacker (Finn Wolfhard) on the other end of the contraband cell phone she stole when VILE’s bookkeeper, Cookie Booker (Rita Moreno; sure pays to have legends working in-house!), made her annual visit.
If this sounds like a lot to keep track of, don’t worry—the first two episodes of the series’ 10-episode season, “Becoming Carmen Sandiego,” are dedicated to telling Carmen’s origin story in full. Starting in the middle of a diamond heist in the present day before tipping into a series of extended flashbacks, the two-parter follows Carmen from her lonely childhood, to the moment she realizes VILE’s training isn’t the innocent, non-murdery fun she’d always thought it was, to the night when, donning her infamous scarlet hat for the very first time, she finally escapes. (“My entire upbringing was a lie. Stealing isn’t a game. It does harm people. Especially when you’re willing to steal lives.” Really making a case for nature over nurture here!)
Parts of these two episodes are tediously clunky: Carmen’s story is revealed to viewers “organically” when she traps herself in a moving train with her ex-BFF/nemesis for the express purpose of telling this very same story to him, a device that becomes tiresome before the first flashback even starts. But the real, human stakes the episodes establish between Carmen and the villains who fed, housed and trained her after her parents abandoned her and her matryoshka dolls by the side of the road in Buenos Aires lend subsequent episodes a surprising degree of emotional heft. Carmen Sandiego is a collection of high-adrenaline, educational capers, each of which packs a heartfelt punch: VILE may be after grosser and grosser personal gain, and ACME’s Chief (Dawnn Lewis, stepping into the late Lynne Thigpen’s no-nonsense shoes) may be after Carmen to get at VILE, but for Carmen, every one of the cat-and-mouse games VILE throws at her is personal. The people who raised her are engaged in actively making the world a worse place, and Carmen feels it is her duty to make up for all the years she remained ignorant of that fact.
Beyond telling a thrilling and satisfyingly emotional good thief vs. bad thief story, Carmen Sandiego also sets out, like its PBS forebear, to educate. To contemporary audiences, unused to getting some didacticism with their children’s animation, the regular breaks this new series takes to translate stats from the World Factbook into enthusiastic conversation between Carmen and the rest of her teammates might feel awkward, but that enthusiastic didacticism is in the franchise’s blood. If this new Carmen Sandiego had sacrificed the geography, art and cultural history lessons native to the Carmen Sandiego brand in favor of the more robust emotional plot it clearly wants to be front and center, it would have been hard to take the series seriously. By not only retaining that element, but transferring the greatest and most earnest passion for cultural preservation to the newly three-dimensional Carmen, the series accomplishes something really interesting: Carmen Sandiego, my friends, is woke.
Well, woke-ish. In truth, the goal of cultivating respect for other cultures and peoples, for arts, and for the optimistic progress that comes from a shared sense of humanity with the rest of the world’s population—that isn’t new to Carmen Sandiego. As much as didactic rap sheets of World Factbook data,and that scarlet coat and hat, deep-seated respect for the world we all share has always been central to the franchise. But by putting the Chief’s exhortations to think globally and do good works into the mouth of a reformed teen superthief, the cumulative effect changes from cheesy educational lecture to fierce moral necessity: “If [Tigress] thinks I’ll stand by as VILE risks people starving to make a quick buck, she has another thing coming!” Change the frame, change the story. It’s not a recipe for global peace, but as far as marrying modern, progressive sensibilities to an artifact of pop culture nostalgia, it is interesting.
That said, of the five episodes made available for review, it’s the fifth, which finds Carmen and her team in classic Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? form, chasing after all of the thirty-four Vermeer paintings known to exist, that is the most thrilling. Preventing a mass starvation event in Indonesia and restoring a priceless old doubloon to the people of Ecuador to honor their sovereignty as a nation are laudable exploits for Carmen and co. to take on, sure, but it is, obviously, high stakes art heists featuring false identities, booby-trapped secret hideouts, high speed chases in cars and on snow-machine that we’re all tuning in for, and on each of those fronts, “The Duke of Vermeer Caper” delivers. It is also a standout episode visually, the animated rendering of the Vermeer paintings managing to achieve precision through abstraction, as the animators adapt the old classics to the series’ house style in a way that—just like several of the characters describe Vermeer doing with natural light in his originals—somehow makes the paintings feel acutely lifelike, even when you can see in detail how unreal they are. Sure, it’s a cartoon, but when Carmen and then the team at ACME sit still to take in these artifacts of human ambition and creativity, the understanding of why art matters breaks right through the fourth wall.
Now, is an existential breakthrough what you’re tuning into Carmen Sandiego for? Probably not. But as long as they’ve already got you for Carmen and Player’s high-tech hijinks, for VILE and ACME’s groaningly broad puns, and for the episodic hops from global hotspot to global hotspot, they’re happy to give you something deeper to chew on, and to look great while doing it.
I can’t wait to watch where in the world Carmen goes next.
Carmen Sandiego premieres Friday, Jan. 18 on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.