Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe – a review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against The Universe as well as for the Phineas and Ferb television series.

This is a rare treat! There hasn’t been a new Phineas and Ferb story since 2015 when the series went off the air, and I genuinely wasn’t expecting it to return. Disney Channel shows are usually one-and-done things, even now that we’re in an era of reboots and unnecessary sequels. Although some of the characters from the series had crossed over to Milo Murphy’s Law, the announcement of Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe was an incredibly welcome surprise.

I first saw Phineas and Ferb shortly after its 2007 premiere. I had a cable television subscription at the time (remember those?) and one of the channels in the package I’d selected was the Disney Channel – not that I watched it all that much as an adult! But somehow I caught a preview or advert for the series, and it looked like a lot of fun so I gave it a try. I was glad I did, because far from being a silly little kids’ cartoon, Phineas and Ferb has a depth to it that I truly believe transcends its target audience. There’s a lot to like in the show for kids and adults, and as someone who first encountered it as an adult, I can attest to that.

Phineas and Ferb debuted in 2007 with the episode Rollercoaster. This was the opening shot of the series.

As I mentioned the last time I talked about Phineas and Ferb, it’s a show I drift back to on my bad days when my mental health suffers. The bright colours, happy storylines, cute animation style, and fun musical numbers can really take the edge off sometimes, and I’ve always appreciated that about the series.

So what about its latest offering then? Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat – what on earth is going on with that horrible title? Nine words is far too long for any film’s title, and it needed to be cut down as much as possible! Calling it something like Phineas and Ferb: Candace v. the Universe would have conveyed the same message in a more concise form; there was no reason to include “the Movie” in the title of… a movie. So long as it was even moderately well marketed the audience would have known it was a feature-length production.

The titular Candace.

Unlike some titles, such as the upcoming Mulan remake, there was never any question of a theatrical release for Candace Against the Universe (as I shall be calling it for the sake of brevity). It was always scheduled for a Disney+ debut, and I believe it was always planned to arrive in the summer. Though the 28th of August is certainly the tail end of summer, it made its release window despite all the pandemonium in the world, and that’s a great accomplishment!

If I had to summarise my thoughts in a couple of sentences, I’d say that the film blew me away. It was exactly what I’d hope for from any returning franchise: plenty of references to past successes, but with a new and exciting story tying it all together. There were numerous callbacks to past events in the series, but none of them felt like they got in the way of a brilliant, surprisingly emotional story.

Candace referred to the events of a number of Phineas and Ferb episodes in her opening song.

Candace Against the Universe riffs off a similar overarching story from Phineas and Ferb: Across the Second Dimension, the first feature-length film in the series that released in 2011. In that story, Candace, Perry, and the boys wound up in an alternate reality and had to get home, while stopping the villain – that dimension’s version of Dr Doofenshmirtz – conquering their home. This time, after Candace is abducted, they have to rescue her and escape an alien planet, then stop the planet’s ruler conquering their home. Both of these stories are epic in scope and allowed for powerful moments, and the fact that it’s not a wholly original premise doesn’t even matter – what matters is it was an amazing ride.

I’ve talked before about Phineas and Ferb delving into some quite deep and complex themes, and perhaps the biggest one featured in Candace Against the Universe is that of mental health. Candace’s unhappiness (or depression), and the fact that those closest to her hadn’t noticed, is a big part of her story and sets up the main plot of the film. Mental health can be a difficult subject for any film to tackle, let alone one primarily aimed at kids, but Candace Against the Universe managed to approach the topic in a way that was understandable even for younger viewers.

Candace’s mental health was the main focus of her story.

Candace being unhappy with herself and her lot in life was communicated in two main sequences: one at the beginning of the film, and one as it approached its climax. It’s very easy for depression to be missed, even when the person isn’t going out of their way to conceal how they feel. Candace’s family didn’t spot how unhappy she was, which ultimately became a contributing factor and made her feel worse. Phineas is the character this affects the most (as Ferb, naturally, has very few lines). The realisation that his sister is feeling awful while he’s been having a great time weighed on him for practically the entire film.

This wasn’t a bolt from the blue for returning fans, either. Candace has always been a character with a complex psyche, at least in the episodes that explored her side of the story in any detail. We’ve seen her being neurotic, manic at times, and dejected and depressed too, so this side of her character really was a natural fit. Obviously there’s far more to mental health than can be explored in an hour-and-a-half, but the elements that the film was able to include – as well as the tone – were pitch-perfect. We often see characters with depression stereotyped, even in films and television shows made for adults. Yet Candace Against the Universe tackled its subject matter in a wholly different way, still firmly making Candace the star while allowing her to explore her issue and get to the heart of why she’s unhappy – instead of just beating us over the head with the fact that she is unhappy.

Vanessa approaches Candace near the beginning of the film.

While the concept of a single issue causing depression, then that depression being easily overcome in one single moment of realisation and coming together (as the film depicts) is arguably an oversimplification, it’s nevertheless by far the best way I’ve seen depression handled in any film or television show for a very long time. The writers and producers deserve a lot of credit for putting out this frank yet understandable depiction, and for conveying the message that you don’t need to be the centre of the universe to matter. That’s what Candace learned – and I bet a lot of kids watching learned it right along with her.

Okay, that’s enough about that for now. Phineas and Ferb was a show with an incredible soundtrack – and Candace Against the Universe didn’t buck the trend. I actually think that Candace voice actress Ashley Tisdale’s singing is even better than it was a few years ago during the show’s original run, and she had a great song right at the beginning called Such a Beautiful Day.

Candace Against the Universe had some great musical numbers.

That song was the opening sequence of the film, and it did a great job not only setting up Candace’s story, but recapping the show for new viewers and those who haven’t seen the series in a while. There also seemed to be a hint – just a hint – at possible further stories in the Phineas and Ferb universe, as Candace sings “other nonsense coming soon” when listing some of the boys’ inventions. I wondered earlier in the year whether Candace Against the Universe might be a springboard for Phineas and Ferb Season 5, and this line was the first big hint that the film dropped at that possibility. Certainly going on the strength of the film and its story, if co-creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh wanted to make another season, Disney would surely be up for it!

Also during this opening song (or rather, during a break in it) we got a short scene between Candace and her best friend Stacy. Though Stacy wouldn’t have much to do in the film overall, I loved this scene. It was a perfectly normal interaction between them, but it was in this moment that I really felt like I was back in the Phineas and Ferb universe. Life was going on, and all the characters were right where I left them.

This scene with Stacy normalised everything and made it feel like Phineas and Ferb never went away.

Other songs were good too, and overall the film had a great soundtrack. The songs equalled the best offerings from the series, and anyone coming into Candace Against the Universe looking for good music certainly didn’t leave disappointed!

The biggest familiar trope missing from the film was the interaction between Perry the Platypus/Agent P and Dr Doofenshmirtz. Because the story involved a team-up between Phineas, Ferb, and their friends with Doofenshmirtz, Perry was relegated to a lesser role, hiding in the shadows trying to avoid being seen by anyone for much of the film. Of course it makes perfect sense, and after the closing of Across the Second Dimension required the kids to get a memory wipe in order for the show to continue its two stories concept effectively, nobody really wanted to see a repeat of that. However, it meant that one of the usual two stories we’d expect from most Phineas and Ferb productions wasn’t present, and there’s certainly part of me that feels that’s a shame. Though there was a very brief fight between them at the beginning of the film, it didn’t fulfil its usual role as the second story, and the absence of that story beat was definitely noticeable.

Perry had less to do than usual – and didn’t really battle Dr Doofenshmirtz.

That isn’t really a complaint, though. Perry still had a role in the story, and although we didn’t see him spend much time with the other characters, he got time with Doofenshmirtz and Vanessa near the end of the film. Perry’s plot in some ways is reminiscent of his role in Across the Second Dimension, where he similarly wasn’t battling against (the original) Dr Doofenshmirtz.

The other thing we didn’t really get to see all that much of was Phineas and Ferb inventing. Off-screen they built the giant clown-robot at the beginning of the film – which was destroyed in a clear homage to Avengers Infinity War! Again off-screen they built the robots they used to attack the villain near the end of the film. They also built the portal to Feebla-Oot, which ultimately didn’t work. Again, I don’t feel this detracted from the film – though it was certainly a brave choice. It was definitely a twist in the final act to see the boys’ robots so easily defeated.

The defeated robots.

Candace Against the Universe actually contained several references to Star Trek, which isn’t something I was expecting! Part of the story involves Baljeet’s obsession with the fictional “Space Adventure” franchise. This isn’t new to Phineas and Ferb and had been mentioned or seen several times before. It’s a generic sci-fi franchise which seems to include films and a television series, and while I would have said past Phineas and Ferb stories treated it more like Star Wars, in this film it was definitely used as a stand-in for Star Trek. The aesthetic of Space Adventure, including its starship design and the design of the bridge of the ship, pays homage to Star Trek, and the starship featured in the show even used the “USS” designation. Baljeet was definitely a Trekkie stereotype at points, but that’s okay!

Phineas and Ferb has often been random in its sense of humour, and Candace Against the Universe definitely continued that trend. Buford bringing a canoe into space is one example that I found funny, and every time the canoe showed up I was wondering if this would be the moment it would finally find a use. The joke about passing the speed of light was hilariously random too – seeing the different stages of animation all the way back to co-creators Marsh and Povenmire explaining the storyboard was breaking the fourth wall at its finest! Again, this is something Phineas and Ferb has done on a few occasions in the past, so this was a continuation of that theme.

Dan Povenmire (left) and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, the co-creators of Phineas and Ferb.

Doofenshmirtz’s lab being destroyed – as it so often was in the show – when the rocket launches was funny too, and shows how bad he is at planning! The post-credits scene where Lawrence steps through the boys’ portal into the still-burning lab was also incredibly funny, and was played pitch-perfectly by both the animators and voice actor Richard O’Brien. O’Brien actually created The Rocky Horror Picture Show – a little Phineas and Ferb trivia for you!

Am I overthinking it, or was the alien prison vehicle at least a little similar to the prison transport Jyn Erso is on near the beginning of Rogue One? Regardless, I loved the cowardly aliens that the gang met, and their city of Cowardalia. It was perhaps a little fast for Phineas and Isabella to inspire the cowardly aliens to take on their biggest foe, but they were cute so they get a pass!

The gang arrives in Cowardalia.

There were plenty of little jokes, too. The escape pods all launching at once because of the faulty alien Alexa device. Vanessa ending up on the planet and not being sent back to Earth. The photo Major Monogram has of Candace being attacked by a crab. The diversion song. The fact that when the aliens’ upper bodies explode it makes the sound “Candace!” Dr Doofenshmirtz insisting on being a leader while being vastly incompetent. All of these little jokes and dozens of others lent that same fun, random sense of humour to the film that fans of the show will have appreciated.

Vanessa’s calmness in the face of everything going on provided a contrast with Candace, and putting the two characters together worked well, especially in the beginning of the film. Olivia Olson, who provides Vanessa’s voice, has always felt like an underrated performer, but she gave it her all here. The jokes about Vanessa posting everything going on on her social media were pretty funny too – as well as setting up a way for Dr Doofenshmirtz to find her. The final act of the film also gave Vanessa a big role, taming a wild space dragon and flying the gang to safety.

Vanessa’s social media post.

The aesthetic chosen for the alien world (Feelba-Oot) was interesting. I kept trying to decipher the name of the planet – it feels like an acronym, but I can’t figure out what (if anything) it means! But back to the way it was designed, I liked the giant mushroom forest, and the brown-and-orange colour palette. It made for a suitably “alien” presentation, as well as being in the vein of some of the classic sci-fi films and series (including Star Trek) that Candace Against the Universe was drawing on for inspiration.

So the crux of the plot. The villain, named Super Super Big Doctor, has a plant which produces mind-controlling spores. She used the plant to conquer the planet, but the plant is old and dying. She believes Candace to be the only source of a special element that can restore the plant – but this turns out to be carbon dioxide, and after Candace tells her there’s loads of it on Earth, she tries to conquer Earth too.

Candace with Super Super Big Doctor.

We can skip the nitpicking and asking why Super Super Big Doctor didn’t realise other earthlings breathe out CO2. The answer is “because plot”, and it’s a kids’ movie so that absolutely gets a pass! The film was, as its title suggests, Candace’s story. And this setup takes Candace from depression to elation as she realises she’s incredibly important – then back to contending with the fact that she isn’t special. Candace comes to realise her unhappiness is tied to feeling inadequate and overshadowed by her brothers, who can perform incredible feats, and she longed to feel special. The mind-controlling plant and evil villain were just there to help her come to that realisation; this is still Candace’s story.

In that sense, Phineas and Ferb (and the rest of the gang) played second fiddle. That’s a bold move for a franchise returning from a five-year hiatus, to put Candace front-and-centre, and it could have backfired. But it didn’t – it worked spectacularly well. Candace provided the story with heart and emotion, and a genuinely satisfying character arc.

Candace with Phineas and Ferb.

It was great fun to have another adventure with Phineas, Ferb, Candace, Perry, and the rest of the gang. I had high hopes for Candace Against the Universe, and I did not come away disappointed. Sometimes a high bar can be impossible to reach, but this time my expectations were met, and the film has to go down as one of the best I’ve seen all year.

The big question now is… will there be more from Phineas and Ferb? And if there are to be further adventures, will they take place in the form of a fifth season or of specials and feature films like Candace Against the Universe? It’s hard to predict right now, but if the film has performed well, I’m sure the team behind it will want to keep going and create more stories in this world. I’ll be very interested to find out if there is more to come, but if not, it’s fair to say that this one-off return saw the franchise go out on a high that surpassed its finale from five years ago.

Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe is available to stream now on Disney+. The film is the copyright of the Walt Disney Company. This review contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.