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In kids' shows ‘The Dangerous Book for Boys’ and ‘Craig of the Creek,’ imagination takes flight

In kids' shows ‘The Dangerous Book for Boys’ and ‘Craig of the Creek,’ imagination takes flight
Drew Powell, from left, is Dash McKenna, Kyan Zielinski plays Liam McKenna and Gabriel Bateman is Wyatt McKenna in Amazon's "The Dangerous Book for Boys." (Giovanni Rufino / Amazon Prime Video)

Two shows for kids about making stuff and the power of imagination debut Friday. One is a cartoon.

Bryan Cranston, the actor, and writer-director Greg Mottola ("Adventureland") have made a character-driven live-action series out of Conn and Hal Iggulden's non-narrative "The Dangerous Book for Boys." It premieres Friday on Amazon Prime. (Cranston is not in it.)

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With its embossed cover and antique typography, the original volume resembles something that might have appeared 100 years ago, back when boys were little men and girls were little women, as far as such things were then understood. It's a compendium of practical instruction and sundry facts of (nominally masculine) interest that means to transport readers to a time before digital devices ruled the Earth, and merely to coax electricity from a potato or hit a rock with a stick was the height of fun.

The television series is of course something you watch on a screen, though it endeavors to be thoughtful and human.

Gabriel Bateman plays Wyatt McKenna, the youngest and least eccentric of three brothers and next to his mother (Erinn Hayes), arguably the most sensible member of his household, including grandmother Tiffany (Swoosie Kurtz), highly vocal about a vaguely scandalous, underground rock 'n' roll past. Eldest brother Liam (Kyan Zielinski) is a business mogul in training, middle brother Dash (Drew Powell) a human tornado of limited intelligence.

Chris Diamantopoulos, left, schools Gabriel Bateman in the art of Trojan War in a scene from "The Dangerous Book for Boys."
Chris Diamantopoulos, left, schools Gabriel Bateman in the art of Trojan War in a scene from "The Dangerous Book for Boys." (Giovanni Rufino / Amazon Prime Video)

Their late father, Patrick – an inventor of whimsical, analog, often food-related gadgets – has recently died of an unspecified disease that nevertheless gave him time to assemble a handsome, handmade, mixed-media tome containing valuable knowledge for his sons. (Questions of gender stereotyping are avoided by making this a book not for every boy, just these particular ones.)

With the presentation of the book and the sudden appearance of his father's twin brother, Terry (Chris Diamantopoulos), an aging beach bum who pitches a tent in the foyer, Wyatt begins having strange episodes. These Walter Mitty-style daydreams transport him to the moon, a jungle and Antarctica, where his father (Diamantopolous, again) appears to him in appropriate costumes.

Whether Wyatt is communing with the actual spirit of his father, just metaphorically digesting what he has read in "The Dangerous Book," or experiencing some sort of pathological fugue state is open to interpretation, but only the most exacting child viewer will care. In narrative terms, Patrick is both dead and alive, and teaching Wyatt poker.

There is darkness in the series, but it all bends toward fuzzy good feelings in the end. Actually, it feels pretty fuzzy all the way through, conscientiously warm and mostly predictable. Lessons are learned, right on time. Some viewers, and parents of viewers, will take such qualities as a recommendation, and they're not wrong to.

Perhaps because they're made less specifically for a young audience, cartoons tend to be sharper, stranger, smarter and more satirical than live-action shows ("The Adventures of Pete and Pete" and certain other series excepted). Cartoon Network's new, sharp, strange, smart and satirical "Craig of the Creek" is created by "Steven Universe" writers Matt Burnett and Ben Levin. Title character Craig (voiced by Philip Solomon) has adventures with his best friends JP (Michael Croner, playing slow and Southern, a little like Daws Butler as Huckleberry Hound) and Kelsey (Georgie Kidder), who narrates her own thoughts and actions in the third person in an English accent, as from the pages of the fantasy novels she reads.

Kelsey (Georgie Kidder), Craig (Philip Solomon) and JP (H Michael Croner) are three friends in a forest in the Cartoon Network series "Craig of the Creek."
Kelsey (Georgie Kidder), Craig (Philip Solomon) and JP (H Michael Croner) are three friends in a forest in the Cartoon Network series "Craig of the Creek." (Cartoon Network)

The creek of the title runs through a woodsy park where kids range free without adult supervision, where a shopping card "from a grocery store chain that nobody's ever heard of" can take on legendary proportions and distance is measured by "backyards" – as when, wearing hazmat suits made from garbage bags, the trio determines to penetrate "18 square backyards of North American poison ivy" to the field's uncharted center.

The stories reflect the way that kids (and maybe the rest of us) construct self-image through pop culture and shared games. There are the bike kids, the horse girls (who claim the meadow), the park "elders" — teenagers, playing role-playing games in a cave. A game of tag becomes a story of contagion and isolation and self-sacrifice. There are departures from reality — a woodsy park is one of the last places a parent is going to let a child run around unsupervised nowadays, just for a start. But by and large, the series exists in a real world of generally plausible physics and relatable human behavior.

That Kelsey, whose budgie Mortimer is usually perched on her head, is a warrior in her mind is perhaps not unrelated to the fact that she is the only child of a single father. ("He wanted a family portrait," she says of a photo hanging in their house, "and without me, it's just a picture of a guy with a mustache.") Craig is also defined by his family, contrasting with a more serious older brother, studying "for a test I have to take in two years," and a little sister with a precocious interest in economics. She's played by Lucia Cunningham, in a performance reminiscent of Cathy Steinberg as Sally Brown in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" — which is to say, she's delightful.

I have no higher praise.

'The Dangerous Book for Boys'

Where: Amazon Prime

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When: Anytime, starting Friday

Rated: TV-Y7 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 7)

'Craig of the Creek'

Where: Cartoon Network

When: 6:25 and 6:45 p.m. Friday

Rated: TV-G (suitable for all ages)

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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