The Greatest Geography Lesson Ever
CHRIS CHAN reviews the Mill Creek Entertainment series Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?
The Carmen Sandiego franchise has provided a highly entertaining way to learn geography, history, astronomy, math, grammar, and other subjects for nearly thirty years. Unfortunately, it seems as if sinister forces are at work to keep the nation’s youth ignorant by suppressing this highly educational series. Most of the Carmen Sandiego computer games need long-outdated computer operating systems to function. Nearly all of the franchise’s books and board games are out of print. The magnificent game show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? has not been seen on television for sixteen years, and PBS has ignored all of the fans’ please to release the series on DVD.
Fortunately, Mill Creek Entertainment has recently released the complete series of the animated show Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?. When I first viewed this series as a child, I thought that it wasn’t quite as good as the game show. Upon re-watching both the cartoon and the game show (recorded by me nearly two decades ago on VHS), I conclude that the cartoon is much better than I remembered, as is the game show. Though I consider the game show to be by far the superior program, the cartoon is still one of the finest—and most educational—animated children’s series ever produced.
Interestingly, most episodes of Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? open with a brief live-action scene consisting of a young person playing a computer game, and emphasizes that all of the series’ main characters are part of a video game. This storytelling device legitimizes some of the more outrageous scenes, such as technology far beyond the realm of current possibility, and the theft of enormous buildings with a few helicopters and grappling hooks. At the same time, the “it’s all just a game” motif dampens the drama and undercuts the character history and personal development that occurs throughout the series, especially in the second half of the show’s run, where the series cleverly moves beyond asking where Carmen Sandiego is and starts asking who Carmen Sandiego is.
For those people who are unfamiliar with the series’ premise, Carmen Sandiego is the world’s greatest thief. Carmen specializes in stealing items of historical and cultural value, ranging from the Hope Diamond to the Sydney Opera House. Carmen is impeccably voiced by Rita Moreno, who manages to make her character increasingly sympathetic as the series progresses. An important bit of characterization unique to the animated series reveals that Carmen never steals just for profit, but primarily for the intellectual thrill of it. Carmen would never, ever dream of harming another person, unlike the violent thugs who become the real villains of the series.
In the last third of the series, there is a surprisingly poignant and fascinating character arc where we learn Carmen’s backstory and discover that she used to be on the side of law and order before deciding to pursue the more creative career of planning intricate thefts. Intriguingly, Carmen seems to derive great pleasure in providing the detectives chasing her with cryptic and ambiguous clues as to her future location. At times, Carmen seems to act more like a playful mentor than a confirmed criminal.
The detectives in this series are Ivy and Zack, a sister and brother team of teenaged sleuths who travel the world in pursuit of Carmen. Ivy is the woman of action, athletic and trained in martial arts. Younger sibling Zack is a technological genius, who knows multiple languages and has an extensive knowledge of world cultures. Their parents are never seen, and they are never seen attending school, although their mission seem to provide them with an extensive education. As we see throughout the series, their employer, the ACME Detective Agency, seems to employ mostly adolescents, which would probably break a lot of child labor laws if the teen gumshoes didn’t have so much fun with their work.
Zack and Ivy are aided in their exploits by the C.H.I.E.F. (Computerized Holographic Imaging Educational Facilitator), a fast-talking hologram that guides the youths and provides little mini-lectures on geography and history. Each episode is packed with so much information and action that viewers will be shocked to realize just how much they are learning.
A ten-episode “best of” release of Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? from Mill Creek is also available, as are a handful of DVDs produced years ago with a fraction of the series’s episodes, but the complete series has not been available until now. Given how inexpensive the newly released forty-episode complete series is, I highly recommend that parents who want their children to better their understandings of foreign cultures to invest in this set. When young people have fun learning, they remember far more than when they simply memorize through drudgery.
With a lot of luck, the re-release of Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? will spark a revival of the entire Carmen Sandiego franchise. It is high time that updated versions of the computer games teaching world geography, U.S. geography, European geography, global history, American history, and astronomy be released. And put the game show on DVD, darn it. A changing world may have left a few scenes out of date, but the vast majority of the show is as excellent and informative as ever.
For more information on this and other series, please see http://www.millcreekent.com/