Movies have been around since the late 19th century, but only now — after more than 100 years of failure — has someone finally made one that hinges on the invention of a ray gun that replaces anyone it shoots with the nearest available chicken. The device is called “The Chicken Replace-inator,” and it’s the latest weapon created by the mad scientist Dr. Doofenshmirtz (of Doofenshmirtz Evil Incorporated fame) in his never-ending quest to kill the fedora-wearing secret agent who always foils his plans and also happens to be a platypus — Perry the platypus.
The cackling lovechild of Abe Vigoda and the Wicked Witch of the West, Doofenshmirtz has come up with all sorts of cockamamie schemes to destroy Perry over the years — one for each of the 222 episodes of “Phineas and Ferb” that aired on the Disney Channel between 2007 and 2015 — but the Chicken Replace-inator has to be among the dumbest and most inspired. Decades after Jeff “Swampy” Marsh and Dan Povenmire first hit upon the basic idea behind their wonderful animated series for kids of all ages, they’re still finding new ways to have fun with it.
The show was supposedly exhumed from the grave because Disney wanted cross-demographic fodder for its new streaming platform, and even longtime fans may not be able to shake the sense that “Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe” reeks of content for content’s sake. But the property itself is such a well-engineered machine — and Marsh and Povenmire have so expertly mastered how to use it — that it’s no surprise the whole contraption still runs smooth (even when they leave it on for a full 90 minutes). It’s more of the same, but more of the same has always been what “Phineas and Ferb” does best.
Anyone who commits to watching this movie is almost certainly familiar with the show’s iterative genius, and how every episode followed the same basic pattern in a way that made them all feel special instead of derivative — like the musical children’s TV show equivalent of watching a Harlem Globetrotters’ game. The gist is that Perry (the Platypus) is the Ethan Hunt of OWCA (Organization Without a Cool Acronym), and he’s spending the domestic “Mission: Impossible — III” phase of his career disguised as a simple house pet who belongs to a pair of brilliant pre-teen boys too busy surfing tidal waves, creating nanobots, or locating Frankenstein’s brain to notice that their chattering little friend has slipped away on another urgent mission.
Phineas (Vincent Martella) and Ferb (David Errigo Jr.) are the two smartest and most productive step-brothers in all of Danville, America, and they spend day of their endless summer vacation leading the neighborhood kids in all sorts of fantastical STEM-adjacent hijinx… much to the chagrin of the boys’ teen sister Candace (Ashley Tisdale), who’s hellbent on “busting” her brothers for moody teen reasons. Alas, every time she’s about to show their mom that Phineas and Ferb have built a 400-foot-tall roller-coaster in their backyard or whatever, the Perry and Doofenshmirtz B-story inadvertently destroys the evidence.
Despite the table-setting plot song that opens the movie, “Candace Against the Universe” is geared towards people who know the true depth of its namesake’s frustration. It was made with the knowledge that every Disney+ subscriber will have the source material at their disposal, and so it’s free to unfold as more of a special piece of DLC than a stand-alone experience (this, I’m afraid, is par for the course of zombie IP in the streaming age). Newcomers might be confused about why Candace, who discovers a giant alien machine in her backyard, is so quick to assume that the spaceship is just her brothers’ latest project. What happens after that, however, is easy enough to follow: Candace and Doofenshmirtz’s daughter Vanessa (Olivia Olson) are beamed into deep space, and it’s up to Phineas and Ferb to get them back. Naturally, Doofenshmirtz, Perry, and a sandlot’s worth of spirited local kids all come along for the ride.
The thing is that Candace doesn’t necessarily want to be rescued. Her green alien captors — a race of humanoid lima-bean-looking things — anoint her “the chosen one” and obsess over the attention-starved teenager at the behest of their domineering queen. Voiced by a sharp Ali Wong and loaded with a name that results from a quirk in Alien-English translation, Super Super Big Doctor is a Trumpian figure from her weird helmet of hair to her obsessions with TV and obedience — she even has some very public issues with her siblings. How evil is Super Super Big Doctor really, and what does she really want from Candace? Such urgent dramatic questions set the stage for all sorts of classic “Phineas and Ferb” antics, from Doofenshmirtz singing a song about “adulting” to Buford (the kind-hearted bully voiced by Bobby Gaylor) bringing a canoe into space and a discussion about how the word “vacuum” can be used as both a transitive verb and a metaphorical concept.
Which is to say that this is still the same “Phineas and Ferb” you probably know and love, only more so. If “Candace Against the Universe” is stretched too far to support the concentric loopiness of the show’s plotting, or recapture the fun of watching the episodes circle back on each other like they were plotted by Philip Glass, the movie makes up for it with some killer new running gags and a handful of extended jokes that commit to the bit harder than the TV show ever could (one sequence involving a cowardly alien’s attempt to escape from Super Super Big Doctor is worthy of comparison to “The Simpsons” at its peak).
It doesn’t really matter that the reliably amusing songs fail to leave much of an impression on first watch (you’ll still wish there were more of them) or that the script’s efforts to solve Candace’s personal issues are a bit half-hearted; “Phineas and Ferb” is still the only kids’ property that’s able to set a valuable lesson about self-worth against the backdrop of a “Naked Gun” reference. A lot of ink has been spilled about children’s animation that’s “fun for parents, too,” but that particular needle is so effortlessly threaded in “Candace Against the Universe” that neither of the movie’s target demographics will flag any of the stuff that’s not “for” them.
In other words, it’s all too perfect for Disney+. The movie’s existence might be unmistakably corporate, but — much like the Chicken Replace-inator — the ultimate value of content like this boils down to how it’s used. And also the location of the nearest chicken.
“Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe” will be available to stream on Disney+ starting Friday, August 28