"Unnatural History" is the first scripted all-live-action series from Cartoon Network, which, like many other cable networks no longer quite lives up to its name. The channel has already tested these waters with cartoon-related live-action specials (a "Scooby-Doo" movie, a couple of "Ben 10" films) and the cartoon-human sitcom "Out of Jimmy's Head," and last year floated a slate of original and imported kid-themed reality shows. But this is them putting their whole leg in and shaking it all about.
Created by Mike Werb, who co-wrote John Woo's "Face/Off" and scripted Jim Carrey's "The Mask," the series, which premieres Sunday, offers action and adventure in a variety of familiar, mashed-together modes. Our hero is Henry Griffin (Kevin G. Schmidt), whose name is not a million phonemes away from Harry Potter's (note also Griffin/Gryffindor resonance), and whose character has been shaped by his having been raised around the world by unconventional anthropologist parents. He has learned from shamans and senseis and possesses Tarzan skills and senses; he can run up walls like Donald O'Connor, spear a football with a javelin from 40 yards and tell you exactly what you ate for breakfast by smelling your breath.
He is also a bit of a hothead, this grasshopper, who will run off to rescue stranded Himalayan hikers when he should be working on his martial arts or studying the nature and number of Noble Truths, and as we open, he is being shipped back under protest from a Bhutanese dojo to a high school in Washington, D.C. ("Washington, D.C.? Those people can't even vote!"). It is a special sort of high school, however, of which his uncle (Martin Donovan, trailing indie cred wherever he goes) is the principal. Attached to the Smithsonian-like National Museum Complex, it is full of secrets and strange things, and before you can say, "Ark of the Covenant," Henry is investigating the death of his archaeologist godfather. There will be ninjas to battle, and a pop quiz.
For all his abilities, civilization, from the word "chill" to the social Darwinism of high school, baffles Henry.
"Where were you raised," asks new classmate Maggie (Italia Ricci), "in a cave?"
"Only for a year," replies Henry.
Maggie, it is quickly clear, is the Hermione Granger of this piece — tart, book-smart — just as there is more than a little of Ron Weasley in Henry's normally gifted but up-for-whatever cousin, Jasper (Jordan Gavaris, demonstrating the value of a good sidekick, to hero and viewer alike). Whether the similarities are intentional, they are not coincidental.
In any case, it works. In spite of the second-hand air and the occasional lazy line of dialogue, the show does just what it's been designed to do: It's fun, fast-paced, and, obviously, safe for children — but neither will it harm adults — and it makes up in spirit what it lacks in sense, and in liveliness what it misses in likeliness.