PHINEAS AND FERB (TV SERIES) - DVD review

Full of smart writing and gags, and deviously constructed to include a little something for everyone.

James Plath's picture
James
Plath

Like "Pinky and the Brain," each episode of "Phineas and Ferb" begins the same way, with the two main characters wondering what to do. But rather than trying to take over the world in every episode, as those lab mice did time and again, the boys use their imaginations to expand their world in order to make their 104-day summer vacation more fun.

This hybrid animated Disney Channel show from creators Dan Povenmire ("The Family Guy") and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh draws inspiration from a number of different shows. In addition to a little Pinky madness, it also has the zaniness and fluid leaps in logic of "The Fairly Oddparents," and a conceptual structure that's reminiscent of another popular Disney Channel show, "Kim Possible." Like that series, "Phineas and Ferb" offers a mixture of spy stuff and teen angst, with another random animal tossed into the mix. Instead of a naked mole rat, it's a platypus. And in this show, it's the pet who's the secret agent. Sounds weird? It is, but it's also a smartly written series that has more inventiveness and energy than most of the cartoon shows that are being produced these days. It celebrates the power of the imagination and revels in every one of those gigantic leaps in logic that defy gravity and provide the infrastructure for every outing. What's more, Povenmire and Marsh seem to like working without a net.

Phineas Flynn (Vincent Martella) and Ferb Fletcher (Thomas Sangster) live with their parents--the seldom-seen Linda Flynn (Caroline Rhea) and even more conspicuously absent Lawrence Fletcher (Richard O'Brien)--somewhere in the "Tri-State area." The boys get along great and are regular magicians when it comes to the visualization and construction of large-scale projects to make their summer days fun. Nothing is too big or too complicated for them, because if they can imagine it, they can build or do it. In some of these episodes, for example, they erect a haunted house to cure the hiccups of their friend Isabella (Alyson Stoner), they construct a complete beach just outside their fenced-in backyard, and they become one-hit wonders just to get a taste of the music business. Much more, and it would seem like work, not play, and these guys like getting away with things. But what goes around comes around, because just as they're pulling a fast one on their parents, these stepbrothers have no idea that the family pet is a secret agent who discretely saves the world every episode.

Like so many cartoon shows, there's a single nemesis, and for secret agent Perry the Platypus (call him "Agent P") it's a baddie who's a little reminiscent of Gargamel from the old "Smurfs" show. The evil Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz (voiced by Povenmire) turned out to be the mad scientist that he is because, as we learn in one episode, he was forced by his German father to stand for hours and days at a time in their garden to replace the family's stolen garden gnome. Such is the deliciously twisted humor of Povenmire and Marsh. Agent P goes after Doofenshmirtz in what almost feels like a parallel (but somehow intersecting) universe, then goes back to his regular life as the family pet. "There you are, Perry," Phineas often says after Agent P has once again quietly triumphed. Given the boys' own outlandish adventures, it's a double dose of imagination pushed to the brink.

The animation is a mixture of geometric shapes (Phineas's head is a simple triangle), a style that again falls somewhere between harsh angularity of "The Fairly Oddparents" and the softer world of "Kim Possible." It's a pleasing-to-watch style that's totally compatible with the wild inventions, wise-guy writing, and breakneck pacing. But what makes every episode really click is a running gag that will remind older viewers of the "Bewitched" TV series, where a neighbor who knew darned well that Samantha was making strange things happen next door kept trying to get her husband to look. But every time he would, things would have returned back to normal. The same thing happens here, with Phineas's older natural sibling Candace (Ashley Tisdale, "High School Musical") obsessed with trying to get her mother to see the kinds of stunts that her brothers are pulling on a daily basis. And the gag is even funnier transplanted to a situation involving an older sister and troublemaking younger brothers--something that so many kids across America can identify with.

As a matter of fact, this is one show that older siblings will enjoy watching with younger ones, and even parents, who may be reminded of the old "Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" shows because of the irreverent, self-conscious style. The show has the same kind of energy too, and offbeat sensibility that stops short of the manic, up-the-pace nonsense that often drives the Cartoon Network shows. "Phineas and Ferb" is great fun, and easily one of the best animated shows out there now. Here are the episodes included on this DVD:

"One Good Scare Ought to Do It!" Pts. 1&2
In this episode that hasn't been seen yet, the boys go to great lengths to build a scary haunted house/theme park with roller coaster, all to get rid of Isabella's hiccups.

"The Fast and the Phineas"/"Lawn Gnome Beach Party of Terror"
The boys "trick out" Mom's car so they can enter the big race at the track that mysteriously popped up outside their fence. Kids can't drive? No problem. They devise a remote control so one boy can manipulate the car while the other "drives" it. Then, overheated, they decide that they'd like to spend a day at the beach. And what begins with a pile of sand and a bucket of water in their backyard soon knocks down that back fence again and spills over into the entire world. They build a real beach, big enough to where Candace ends up winning a limbo contest and being lauded as queen of the beach.

"Are You My Mummy?"/"FlopStarz"
Inspired by a movie, the boys try to get a mummy, but it's Candace who ends up being wrapped in toilet paper, while Doofenshmirtz's latest scheme to flood the city by destroying a beaver dam, all to make his own property "beachfront." In "FlopStarz," Doofenshmirtz creates a giant robot out of a building that terrorizes Danville, while the boys decide they want to be one-hit wonders and Candace once again gets her moment in the spotlight.

"Raging Bully"/"Lights, Candace, Action!"
One-two-three-four, let's have a thumb war. Phineas enters a competition, while Doofenshmirtz invents a gadget that will control people's minds . . . all so that they'll be forced to attend his birthday party and clean up the mess after it's all over. In "Lights, Candace, Action!," Candace is delighted to star in "The Princess Sensibilities" until the new directors (Phineas and Ferb) decide to go a different direction, like "The Curse of the Princess Monster." Doofenshmirtz creates an Age Acceleratorinator, first to more quickly make cheese, but then to try to age Agent P.

"It's about Time!" Pts. 1&2
The stepbrothers discover an old time machine and travel back to the Jurassic Age to bring back a T-Rex. Meanwhile, these are tough times for poor Perry. It turns out that Dr. Doofenshmirtz no longer thinks of him as his nemesis. That honor is now reserved for a hero named Peter the Panda.

There's a little postmodernist play in the show, with the villain narrating exactly what he's going to do at one point but pausing when he hears no dramatic music . . . then, after the musical cue kicks in, he says, "Ahem," and continues. It's that kind of material stretches the fabric of this show to fit all sizes.

Video:
The picture looks super-sharp for a DVD, with gorgeous colors and a nice level of detail for standard definition. Disney's M.O. has been to release a handful of episodes per DVD, rather than come out with full seasons of its TV shows. If they're ever tempted to make an exception, this would be a good title to start with, because of the wide appeal that it holds. More adults would be likely to watch this show than most of the Disney Channel offerings. The aspect ratio is 1.33:1.

Audio:
The audio is a Dolby Digital Surround that involves the rear channels as well, probably a 5.1 mix. The booming and dynamic sound adds to the sense of energy, and as with the video it's a far better treatment than we're used to seeing at this level.

Extras:
As if they know they've got something that appeals to adults as well as kids, the Disney folks split the bonus features right down the middle, with something for each. Adults will enjoy the original pitch by Dan Povenmire that was used to sell Disney on the idea of the series, with Povenmire doing all the voices and narration. They liked the show enough to give him a contract, and they like his Doofenshmirtz voice enough to allow him to casst himself. Not a bad deal. This is a 22-minute feature that will seem invaluable to young would-be filmmakers wanting to know how it all begins.

For the kids, there's Phineas & Ferb's Homemade Tree Shade Arcade, a game section that includes four different activities. The games aren't super fabulous, but they should amuse the kids at least for an afternoon. There's a Whack-a-Gnome game that's a good tension reliever, a driving game where you use the left-right arrows to navigate, a matching game where you consider the situation that Perry finds himself in and click on the disguise that will enable him to blend in, and finally a pair of parental marionettes that kids use arrow keys to keep them dancing (and derive perverse pleasure from the role reversal, I'm sure). Of the four games, the disguise game is actually the most interesting.

Bottom Line:
"Phineas and Ferb" was a nice surprise. I expected a dumb or generic cartoon, but this one has personality to spare. It's full of smart writing and gags, and deviously constructed to include a little something for everyone. Even would-be evil scientists.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
7
Film Value
8