Continuing an expansion beyond its confining animation box that began with icky kid-oriented reality shows, “Unnatural History” marks Cartoon Network’s next-gen push into live-action drama. Other than breaking from its mold, however, the show proves an unexciting mish-mash of genres owing its biggest debt to the Hardy Boys, as a couple of high-schoolers attending class at the National Museum Complex in D.C. seek to unravel mysteries. While clearly aimed to attract a slightly older crowd, there’s not much to transfix them here unless they harbor untapped yearnings for a barely pubescent version of “National Treasure.”
Adding a kung-fu twist, our hero Henry (Kevin G. Schmidt) has developed a variety of mad ninja-like skills by traveling the world with his anthropologist parents (think “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” — if only). This globetrotting experience enables him to do a lot of handy things, like pluck deadly blowgun darts from midair. Clearly, every kid will want to enroll in that study-abroad program.
Dispatched to live with his Uncle Bryan (Martin Donovan) and cousin Jasper (Jordan Gavaris), Henry soon discovers the museum yields its share of excitement, prompting the adventurous youth to drag the cautious Jasper along for the ride. And yes, there’s an obligatory girl in the mix, Maggie (Italia Ricci), though she doesn’t register much in the premiere, as Henry grapples with masked killers and does his best (slow-motion) Spider-Man impression by shimmying up walls.
The setting, presumably, is meant to provide an excuse to incorporate history and other educational tidbits into the stories, but all that really does is further the not particularly helpful sense “Unnatural History” is little more than a live-action cartoon — “Scooby-Doo” minus the knee-trembling pooch.
Created by Mike Werb (“The Mask”) and directed by Mikael Salomon, the pilot proves busy without yielding the requisite thrills a young audience weaned on big-budget movies is apt to demand. And initially, anyway, the Henry-Jasper pairing doesn’t pop enough to offset those limitations.
Granted, the mystery-of-the-week template is familiar to kids, with new-kid concerns about fitting in at school as a fall-back posture. Yet given that “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” is Cartoon’s premiere attraction, it’s a separate mystery why the channel looks so eager to treat its first name like a dirty word.
If the strategy looks fuzzy, this much seems clear: Inasmuch as the mandate is to age CN’s profile upward and garner attention in a crowded kid/tween/teen space, this foray into “History” would have been better served by being a bit less natural — and taking a few more chances.