“Hot tip, gumshoes!”
First off, no, this isn’t the goofy PBS game show for kids featuring Rockapella. That was called Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? This series is called Where on Earth is Carmen Sandeigo? No confusion there.
This Carmen Sandiego is the animated series that debuted on Fox Saturday mornings in 1994. The pop culture gods and goddesses of Shout! Factory—one of the most exciting and unpredictable DVD companies around—have carved out another niche for themselves recently by releasing several late ’80s and early ’90s TV toons on DVD. Now they’ve worked their magic on the 12-episode first season of Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?, based on a series of educational yet somehow popular computer games.
Although the characters travel all over the world, the entire series actually takes place inside a computer. An unseen “player,” a.k.a. a kid in front of his or her computer, guides two teen detectives, tough girl Ivy and her wisecracking brother Zack, in their globe-hopping search for master thief Carmen Sandiego. Carmen is usually stealing various historic or geographically important treasures for her own purposes, leaving clues behind for our heroes. Can Zack and Ivy put a stop to her outrageous schemes, and, perhaps, track down Carmen herself?
Typical episode: Carmen shows up in some exotic part of the world, and pulls off an impossible heist. In a brief live action segment, the player—seen only as young human hands typing on a computer—receives a taunt from Carmen and sends for Zack and Ivy. Using their convenient C5 tunnels, the teen detectives are able to travel anywhere in the world in an instant. They’re aided along the way by the Chief, an enthusiastic character who only appears as a face on a hovering electronic screen. He provides both jokes and educational tidbits about the lands they’re visiting. Ivy and Zack end up pursued by Carmen’s henchmen, only to escape with a clue to Carmen’s next thievery. Each item she steals has something in common, and figuring that out is the key to Carmen’s overall plot. In a final confrontation with Carmen, Zack and Ivy recover what was stolen, but Carmen always has an escape plan.
The series pulls off quite the balancing act between two elements. First is the action. Each episode is a mini-movie, as Zack and Ivy are chased all over any exotic cities or countries they happen to visit. A typical day for these two could lead to motorcycle chases, airplane chases, and, in one case, ostrich chases. Ivy’s also not against throwing down some bad guys with some high-flying martial arts. Take that, Buffy! The other half of the series is the educational half. The whole Carmen Sandiego franchise has been about teaching kids geography and history, and this series is no different. Whenever Zack and Ivy C5 from one continent to the other, the Chief takes a moment to offer all sorts of homework-enhancing tidbits about each place. So, basically, the series is one big geography lesson, but at least it’s one with explosions and butt-kicking.
Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? benefited from some excellent voice acting, with Scott Menville (Robin from Teen Titans) as Zack, Jennifer Hale (Cowboy Bebop: The Movie) as Ivy, Roger Bumpass (The Professor from The Powerpuff Girls) as the Chief, and multiple award-winning actress Rita Moreno (West Side Story) as the titular thief. Look carefully at the closing credits, and you’ll spot other recognizable voices in guest spots, such as actors Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Jim Belushi (Red Heat), and reliable voice actors Jess Harnell (Wakko from Animaniacs), Kath Soucie (Phil and Lil from Rugrats), and Maurice LaMarche (Brain from Pinky and the Brain). These aren’t the most groundbreaking of scripts, but having such excellent voice talent elevates them significantly.
• Each episode sticks closely to the same formula, making it feel very repetitive when watching several in a row.
• Some more substantial extras would have been nice, especially a look at the origins of the Carmen Sandiego character, and her history in various media over the years.
• That’s one annoying theme song.
For a TV cartoon that’s more than 10 years old, Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? looks so sharp on DVD that it might have been made yesterday. Colors are bright and vivid, with sharp details. The stereo sound doesn’t fare as well, and is not as booming or immersive as it could be. For extras, there are the complete storyboards for the first episode, a sketch gallery, and the annoying theme song in eight languages. Also, there’s an “episode trivia” feature, showing the bumpers, little 10-15 second bits before and after each commercial break, which ask trivia questions about some of the geographic or historical facts from each episode.
I’m guessing young kids will dig this, and older kids will find it a guilty pleasure—one they’ll enjoy but never admit it to their friends. Heck, this early-’30s kid had a blast watching it.