With its lightning-fast combination of kid-friendly action, goofy humor, and education not at all subtly disguised as entertainment, "Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?" is exactly the kind
of cartoon series I'd have loved as a kid.
Carmen Sandiego, the criminal mastermind with the blazing red trench coat and matching fedora, began her life in the mid-1980s in a series of video games designed to teach geography; the games evolved to later include lessons on history, math, language, and outer space. In 1991, a game show, "Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?," began airing on PBS and, with the help of a rather catchy theme song and an overall sense of silly fun, became something of a hit.
In 1994 came a cartoon adventure series spin-off, "Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?," which ran for a few seasons on Fox before getting shuffled off to the now-defunct Fox Family Channel for its sporadic fourth (and final) season. To help the cartoon fit with the game, each episode featured a live action child (seen only from behind and known only as "Player") seated at his computer, typing challenges to Carmen and activating the main characters with the click of a mouse. The conceit, then, is that the adventures we see are part of the same game kids might play at home. When the lead characters shout a request to "Player," it's as if they're shouting them to the viewer. It's a tricky device, considering any viewer interactivity seen here is artificial, but it somehow works well enough.
Most of the show runs free of this gimmick, coming off instead as a straightforward adventure. Ivy (voiced by Jennifer Hale) and Zack (Scott Menville) are a teenage sibling duo working for the Acme Detective Agency, always working overtime to crack the clues left behind by Carmen Sandiego (the great Rita Moreno). Assisting them is a Max Headroom-esque video boss, Chief (Roger Bumpass, better known these days as Squidward on "Spongebob Squarepants") - and, of course, Player, who helps teleport them across the globe, or maybe pop some valuable information on the screen.
Each adventure has Carmen stealing some impossible landmark - the Hollywood sign, the top of the Tower of London - with clues leading to Carmen's next heist. To solve the clues, Zack and Ivy use more wit than brawn (although enough action is sprinkled throughout each episode to keep things moving), discussing many interesting bits of history and world culture. Carmen always gets away in the end (it's no spoiler - if she were captured, there'd be no series), enjoying the thrill of the chase and taunting Player to be ready for the next challenge.
There's something quite special here, among the action and comedy that feel obligatory for a cartoon, and it's all in how intelligence is respected above all else. Carmen, bless her heart, is a thief only in the sense of her love of a mental contest; she's not out to hurt anybody, often leaving valuables behind, and, in one episode, attempting to save Ivy from harm. The teens, then, give their brains a workout with every adventure, obviously taking great delight in solving Carmen's geography riddles.
More importantly, the writing staff wisely avoids a dangerous cliché. Often in a series of this sort, we'll get one smart character and one average one, the idea being the smart one will explain everything to the average one, and, in essence, us, too. But in "Carmen Sandiego," both leads are cracking brilliant, the twist being that they're just experts in different things, explaining ideas to each other but never dumbing anything down.
In fact, this series is so respectful of kids' intelligence that the scripts even refuse to translate foreign languages. If the kids go to Russia, then we'll hear Russian, accompanied by nice, big subtitles. At last, a show that feels that instead of talking down to kids, you should treat them as the smart young folks they are.
Heck, even the theme song is brainy, a parody of sorts on Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Not as catchy as the doo-wop theme performed by Rockappella for the game show, but cute and snazzy nonetheless.
Finally, each episode places trivia quiz at each commercial break, with questions pertaining to facts discussed earlier in the show, and answers revealed as the commercials end and the show returns. Again, I loved this sort of thing in my younger days (still do, in fact), and I'm sure that I'm not alone.
Shout! Factory collects all thirteen episodes of the first season of "Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?" in a three-disc box set. An assortment of episodes from the series were previously available in two "best-of" discs from DiC Entertainment; ignore those and look for this upgrade instead.
Included in this set are the following episodes:
Disc one: "The Stolen Smile," "A Higher Calling," "Dinosaur Delirium," and "Moondreams."
Disc two: "By a Whisker," "The Good Old, Bad Old Days," "Rules of the Game," and "Chapter and Verse."
Disc three: "Music To My Ears," "The Play's the Thing," "Split Up," "A Date With Carmen (Part One)," and "A Date With Carmen (Part Two)."
The full frame (original 1.33:1 broadcast format) presentation is pretty darn snazzy, with colors popping. The animation, while not among the very best of its era, is quite detailed and vibrant, and this set shows the artwork off quite well.
Nothing wrong at all with the surprisingly dynamic Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack. No subtitles are provided.
The main bonus feature here, of interest to those who like such things, is the complete pilot episode, "The Stolen Smile," replayed with its original storyboards. I've never been able to make it more than a minute or two through such features, but animation buffs and young viewers interested in the cartoon process will find this of interest.
Three short art galleries display concept and final designs for characters, sets, and props, respectively. Again, only for those interested in animation or the show's history.
A set of the show's theme song in various languages is a nice touch, adding to the educational globetrotting feel of the series. That said, it's more a curiosity than anything else, with replay very doubtful.
"Episode Trivia" is exactly that: each disc takes the questions found in each episode on that disc, shuffles them up, and runs through them without narration. All three trivia sets run around two minutes in length.
Finally, the first disc starts up with a (skippable) collection of trailers for other Shout! Factory releases.
While Shout! Factory is probably banking on the nostalgia market, assuming that eager buyers will want to capture a favorite part of their youth, I'll add that they shouldn't count out parents looking for something that's both educational and plenty fun for their kids. My daughter ate it up, and so did I. Recommended.