Take yourself back to the summer of 2007. Tiger Woods was at the height of his career. The first iPhone had a triumphant release. I went to a week of summer camp and returned with a couple hundred mosquito bites. And in August, Disney Channel previewed an animated show called “Phineas and Ferb.”
As someone who started watching the show early on, “Phineas and Ferb” was one of my longest-running influences. It ran from 2008 until 2015 and consisted of four seasons with over 30 episodes each, plus a few hour-long specials and a feature length Disney Channel film in 2011. The show itself may have been set (somewhat hilariously) over the course of one summer, but for many of its watchers it was an entire childhood.
I watched the show consistently through elementary and middle school, always finding joy in the silly jokes and catchy songs. In 2015 when I heard that the show was ending, I cleared my schedule so that I could watch the finale, even though I hadn’t watched the show in a year or two. And when the show went on Netflix a bit later, I found myself watching every episode — enjoying the ones I had missed, and rewatching the ones I had recorded and watched repeatedly in 2011 but loved all the same.
As I have watched “Phineas and Ferb” over the years, regardless of whether I was 10 years old or 20, I have always enjoyed it. I kept expecting myself to be “too old” to watch the show, and yet that age has never come. This is one of the things about “Phineas and Ferb” that sets it apart from most animated shows aimed at kids: It’s truly enjoyable for all ages. It’s a show that is brightly colored and silly enough to keep kids engaged, but also filled with jokes that hit differently with age. Creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, along with their team of writers, somehow found the perfect comedic balance of silly punchlines and deep social and self-awareness. I have never seen another show master breaking the fourth wall in quite the same way, but it’s delightful every time they pull it off. Plus the show is rife with pop culture references that span across the decades, riffing on everything from ’80s pop stars to the “Twilight” movies.
Of course there are also the songs, which are fun, endlessly catchy and occasionally become cultural phenomena — there’s an entire generation who knows exactly what an “aglet” is, and anyone who says they don’t know the words to “Gitchee Gitchee Goo” is probably lying. So this brings us to “Candace Against the Universe” (2020), the first return to “Phineas and Ferb” — other than the crossover episode in Povenmire and Marsh’s “Milo Murphy’s Law” — since the show ended.
If I’m being honest, Candace (Ashley Tisdale, “Scary Movie V”) is probably one of the least likable “Phineas and Ferb” characters. There’s an episode in “Phineas and Ferb” season 2,“Split Personality,” where one of Phineas and Ferb’s creations split Candace into her “essence,” which consists of only two parts: her obsession with Jeremy and her one-track determination to bust her brothers.
Despite this, she isn’t entirely one-dimensional. The thing that has always struck me about Candace, especially as I’ve gotten older, is the way that she creates her own misery — she’s so wrapped up in her negativity and single-minded motivation that she is unable to enjoy her own life. The first “Phineas and Ferb” movie, “Across the Second Dimension,” is primarily focused on Phineas and Ferb’s relationship with Perry after they find out about his role as a secret agent; this film offers an intriguing chance to focus on Candace.
“Candace Against the Universe” starts with an opening song that does three main things: it reestablishes the world with quick reminders of some of the boys’ more memorable creations, it weaves in a series of incredibly clever lyrics that made me realize how much I had missed this show, and it tells us how miserable Candace is from her summer of failure. She feels overshadowed by her brothers when all she wants to do is feel special (don’t we all), and feels like the universe is acting against her (don’t we all). And then, somewhat suddenly, she gets abducted by aliens, and is faced with a chance to be special after all.
From some perspectives, “Candace Against the Universe” is a classic story: girl wants to feel special compared to genius brothers, girl gets abducted by aliens, brothers go to rescue girl, girl and brothers fight together against aliens and learn some important lessons along the way. The film’s plot is chaotic at times, but that’s the first rule of watching “Phineas and Ferb”: Suspend your disbelief, and give it the benefit of the doubt. The film, and the show, are animated for a reason and can mess with the rules of time and space within this animated world of infinite possibilities.
The film is even more remarkable, however, when you realize that the majority of it was made in the middle of a global pandemic. Production continued even as the creative team was completely isolated: The cast recorded their lines individually from home, and the animation team coordinated between three different overseas animation studios to create the film. When taken in that context, “Candace Against the Universe” is all the more impressive.
What grounds the film is the familiarity throughout. Almost the entire cast was able to return: Tisdale as Candace, Vincent Martella (“Everybody Hates Chris”) as Phineas, Alyson Stoner (“Cheaper by the Dozen”) as Isabella, Maulik Pancholy (“30 Rock”) as Baljeet, Povenmire as Dr. Doofenshmirtz, and many more, with David Errigo Jr. (“Milo Murphy’s Law”) as Ferb since Thomas Brodie-Sangster (“The Maze Runner”) was unable to reprise his role. There are the same delightful moments of self-awareness and fourth wall breaks, and the same brand of hilarious and toe-tappingly fun musical numbers. There are long and silly bits that are borderline slapstick, but there are also jokes requiring societal context that are much funnier for adults than kids. And all throughout there are references and running bits from the show that put a smile on the face of any “Phineas and Ferb” fan.
For many of the jokes, it’s impossible to tell whether it’s the stupidest thing ever thought of or the most brilliant. For example, a running gag centers on the idea that the aliens that abduct Candace occasionally explode from the waist up — and that the sound it makes when they explode sounds like “Candace.” That in and of itself is a lot to take in, but after some research I found out that the voice of those “Candaces” is none other than Tiffany Haddish. The fact that Tiffany Haddish is in this film and is actually billed as “The Sound Someone Makes When They Explode From the Waist Up” sent me into a three-minute stunned silence.
But balancing silly and ridiculous without tapping into flat-out stupidity is what “Phineas and Ferb” has always been good at. Things like the alien leader being named Super Super Big Doctor (Ali Wong, “Always Be My Maybe”) or this film hinging on a device called a “chicken-replace-inator” are exactly what I expected, and wanted, from this film.
There’s certainly a predictability to the movie, but you have to remember two things: one, that it is technically for kids even if it doesn’t always feel like it, and two, that predictability is what the show operated on for eight years. Every episode of Phineas and Ferb had a formula: Phineas and Ferb make something cool, Doofenshmirtz makes an inator, Candace tries to bust her brothers, Perry defeats Doofenshmirtz, the inator inexplicably helps with cleaning up Phineas and Ferb’s latest creation, Candace fails at busting, they eat pie, and there’s a song somewhere in there. What makes the show unique is that, even with this formula, every episode feels different and exciting. That is impressive, and it’s what makes “Phineas and Ferb” so special.
Unfortunately, we don’t get the endless summer that “Phineas and Ferb” have been enjoying since 2007. School is coming back, in the strangest way we’ve seen yet, and there’s a lot happening in the world that needs to be acknowledged and paid attention to. Still, I enjoyed being able to put myself back into that endless summer, even if it was just for 86 minutes of funny jokes, hilarious songs, heartwarming moments and familiar characters. It’s a lovely story about family — I’d be lying if I said the reconciliation between Candace and her brothers didn’t make me tear up a little — and it’s a return to the “Phineas and Ferb” that I love while finding ways to expand the world a little more. For me, this was the perfect movie to be watching in my bedroom in the middle of a Michigan thunderstorm in the middle of a global pandemic. Maybe it’s not, as Phineas might say, the Best Movie Ever, but it’s exactly what it should be. And so if anyone wants to know: “Aren’t you a little old to be watching a “Phineas and Ferb” movie?” Yes, yes I am. But who cares?