Review: “Candace Against the Universe” struggles to adapt

Phineas and Ferb premiered when I was nine and lasted long enough that I outgrew all other Disney Channel programming and came right back for their other animated series in the years before its finale. It overlapped with both Kim Possible and Gravity Falls, acting as a bridge between distinct eras of television animation. Its longevity was helped along not only by its episodic format but by its clever, outlandish sense of humor and sprawling cast of characters. For eight years, there was always some other concept or character dynamic to explore for a brisk eleven minutes.

The bad news is that Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe feels more like a subpar extended episode of the show than a heightened cinematic event. The good news is that even the worst episodes always had something in them to be enjoyed.

I previously planned to review Across the 2nd Dimension, the series’ first film spinoff, before this was released, but I had trouble finding things to say about it that wouldn’t make it seem like a review of the show itself. I’ll include my brief thoughts on that one here, because I think it’s worth making the comparison.

Where Candace Against the Universe is meant to appeal to both fans of the show and new audiences, Across the 2nd Dimension aired at the height of the show’s popularity and uses the presumed familiarity to turn the formula on its head. It explores an alternate universe where the inept villain of the series was able to achieve his goal of conquering the Tri-State Area, raising the stakes drastically without feeling forced or out of place. The show had never had any world-ending drama up to that point, but it’s believable in this world that a portal to another dimension could be opened. The emotional conflicts feel natural despite its fast-paced comedic tone, because there are already layers to its ostensibly stock characters.

Dr. Doofenshmirtz is a parody of the evil scientist archetype, but his usually low-stakes motivations and relationship with his daughter make the audience root for his emotional goals even as we root against his tangible ones. Perry the Platypus being a secret agent undercover as a household pet would be funny enough (as would the characters simply having a pet platypus), but he becomes more likable when we see that he genuinely loves his owners and wants to protect them. Isabella, Baljeet, and Buford all have their cliche character elements, but they feel like real friends and get more chances to shine throughout the series. Since their second-dimension counterparts are versions of themselves under vastly different circumstances instead of being their opposites, the movie allows characters to interact who normally wouldn’t, and their more complex qualities come into play. It has a typical television budget and a relatively short runtime, but no time is wasted and every character is used in the most effective way.

Candace Against the Universe feels like it’s supposed to be bigger than the series and DCOM, but it doesn’t know how to actually accomplish that. It’s too focused on introducing an even higher-stakes conflict than its predecessor and not alienating new viewers (no pun intended) that it’s hard to get invested in the emotional element even as someone who grew up with the show. It doesn’t take time to properly establish its main characters and their relationships before the plot kicks in, so anyone unfamiliar with them has no reason to care what happens.

Candace’s character progression is decently written, but it’s nothing we haven’t already seen in the series. Phineas is defined by his optimism and ingenuity, but neither is put to good use at any point in the film. Vanessa shows up completely randomly and seems to only be in the movie to give Doofenshmirtz a reason to be involved. Aside from a few lines where he says he’s worried about her, their relationship is largely irrelevant when there’s a clear opportunity to give them an arc parallel to what Candace goes through with her brothers. He has something resembling an arc with Isabella — even an entire musical number — but we don’t see either or them learn or change in any real way, so it feels equally pointless.

If Candace Against the Universe had a production more like Across the 2nd Dimension, I might chock all of this up to time constraints. But not only did 2nd Dimension prove that to be surmountable, the amount of times the movie grinds to a halt for jokes that quickly stop being funny proves that there was time to develop the right elements, it was just misused. Coupled with the often awkward-looking animation, the show’s timeless comedic style turns hit-or-miss at a time when it can’t afford more than a few misses.

One area where the film measures up to the show and DCOM is the soundtrack. Not only does its higher budget allow for a full orchestral score, but a few of the songs are among the best in the franchise. Others are more simple comedic numbers, but those have always been a big part of Phineas and Ferb ‘s identity and made the show that much more enjoyable. The action sequences are fun and fast-paced, more aligned with the franchise at its best, and left me disappointed that the entire movie isn’t at that caliber.

For Phineas and Ferb fans, or even people who are just a bit nostalgic for it, there are things to appreciate in Candace Against the Universe, even if it might be better to simply rewatch some older episodes of the series. For anyone going in cold, I can’t see it resonating or piquing interest in the show. The comedy repeatedly drags, and the emotional moments rarely feel earned. The supporting characters don’t get their due and appear either briefly out of obligation or more than is justified by their actual contributions to the plot. What’s worse, the movie is so afraid of confusing its new audience that it all but strips its principal characters of their personalities, which will disappoint longtime viewers and probably make new viewers wonder what the fuss is about. It’s cute enough and has some catchy songs, but you may be better off watching Across the 2nd Dimension, Summer Belongs to You, or even the Milo Murphy’s Law crossover from last year.

An MFA student at Hollins University whose penchant for Disney led into a love for all things film. Film critic/essayist and screenwriter. View all posts by Mary McKeon

Originally published at on August 29, 2020.



Film/TV critic, essayist, and screenwriter. Hollins University class of 2020 current MFA student.

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Mary McKeon

Film/TV critic, essayist, and screenwriter. Hollins University class of 2020 current MFA student.