Take the three lead characters from the Harry Potter, subtract their wizardly skills and stick them in National Treasure and the result would be very like The Cartoon Network’s first live-action adventure series, Unnatural History [Sundays, 8/7C] – and that’s not a bad thing!
When Henry Griffin’s [Kevin G. Schmidt] archaeologist parents send him home to Washington, DC, he is less than thrilled. “Those people can’t even vote,” he cries. Worse, from his life lived around the globe, he’s picked up all the skills you need to survive in the wild – which makes him completely unprepared for high school. Not to mention the fact that his godfather [Colin Fox] has been murdered – something he learns in the worst possible way; at the worst possible moment.
Stuck with his uncle Bryan Bartlett [Martin Donovan – you’ll know him when you see him] and cousin Jasper [Jordan Gavaris], Henry determines to find out who killed his godfather and why. But first, he makes an enemy of the professor of Ornithology 101, his godfather’s son – who seems strangely grief-free.
What was a murder investigation soon turns into an adventure with derring-do, narrow escapes and buried/sunken treasure. There are encounters with gun-toting ninjas, keys without corresponding locks, poison from exotic birds [with corresponding icky cure], and a cute vegetarian with a photographic memory [Maggie, played by Italia Ricci].
The premiere, written by series creator Mike Werb, is just the other side of far-fetched but the episode is smart, funny and filled with action – and enough actual history to lend credibility to the historical mystery.
Schmidt plays the curious, impulsive and highly skilled Henry [who picks a football out of the air with a javelin at one point] with an energy and affability that recalls Sean Patrick Flanery in The Young Indian Jones Chronicles. Gavaris is appropriately nerdy and hesitant, but loyal [if requiring a bit of persuasion] as Jasper, who admits that he only does what his father says when he’s actually watching.
The potential wild card of the series, Maggie, contributes a few key moments in the pilot but will likely be pitting her photographic memory and observational skills [again, you’ll know what I mean when you see it] to use on behalf of Henry and Jasper on a regular basis. Ricci plays her as confident in her knowledge, if a bit insecure of herself as a person.
Donovan’s Uncle Bryan, principal of the high school, provides the real world grounding from which all the show’s craziness can proceed. He can create an air of exasperation without moving a muscle – as well as a sense of authority and intractability. Bryan and Maggie are the Dumbledore and Hermione to Schmidt and Gavaris’ Harry and Ron.
The four leads have undeniable chemistry and director Mikael Salomon plays to their strengths. The premiere is fast-paced, with good action choreography and enough moments of genuine emotion to keep it from becoming too much of a live-action cartoon. Even the effects [practical and CG] are close to perfect – neither too complex to call attention to themselves, nor too restrained to be properly effective.
Unnatural History may not be a toon but the series is certainly animated enough to fit in on The Cartoon Network. If future eps match the premiere for fun, excitement and suspense, Unnatural History should be a hit.
Final Grade: A-