"Phineas and Ferb: The Perry Files" - I Love It! I Hate It! Curse You, Disney Home Video!!
My first assessments of Disney’s Phineas and Ferb weren’t terribly kind. However, I am quite happy to say that the show grew and evolved into a genuine favorite over time, although I’m honestly not sure how much is because the show honed its formula and its delivery, and how much is because I finally twigged on the gag. Either way, it is a sharp, consistently funny show that manages to nail the sweet spot of entertainment that’s equally enjoyable for audiences of any age. It’s all the more remarkable for being able to do this without a hint of meanness or cruelty that creeps into even the classic Looney Tunes cartoons, to say nothing of coarser modern animated shows. Despite the show’s runaway success, Disney continues to undersell the property on DVD; if the latest release (The Perry Files) is the best single-disc release of the TV show (as opposed to the Christmas and Across the Second Dimension TV movies), it’s only because the other two DVD releases were so impossibly lame.
The title characters of Phineas and Ferb are stepbrothers who while away their summer vacation by building incredibly elaborate and madcap contraptions, while their older sister Candace tries (and fails) to bust them by telling their mother about whatever it is that they’ve done. Meanwhile, their pet platypus, Perry, is actually the mute Secret Agent P, working for the OWCA (Organization Without a Cool Acronym) to foil the not-so-sinister plots of the evil scientist Dr. Doofenshmirtz. The show is formulaic in the extreme, akin to Pinky and the Brain, in that the pleasures come from the infinite variations on the same theme. From those earliest episodes on that first DVD, the show has gotten much, much better at wrapping its two halves together, and has also honed the formula enough that it can wring laughs by subverting itself.
Subverting the formula in different ways marks the first two episodes on the disc, taken from the show’s second season: “No More Bunny Business/Spa Day” and “Split Personality/Brain Drain,” the latter of which is one of my favorite single episodes of the show. In “Split Personality,” Candace is divided into two component parts by Phineas and Ferb’s new Molecular Separator: one obsessed with busting Phineas and Ferb and one obsessed with Jeremy. Meanwhile, Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s plans to prove his manhood by high-diving into the public pool, with his “Look-Away-inator” rigged up to make everyone in the Tri-State Area look away so he won’t get self-conscious. This segment has two of the funniest throwaway punch lines the show has ever done, but attempting to set them up without context would just suck the life out of them (although, for the record, they are, “I’ve got some stretch marks that would say otherwise” and “I taste lilacs”). “Brain Drain” is much more centered on the Perry/Doofenshimrtz conflict, since the kids and their friends spend the episode home sick and playing networked video games from their beds. Perry is trapped by the “De-Volition-ator,” allowing Dr. Doofenshmirtz to use a giant R/C controller to work Perry like a puppet. The episode reaches its denouement in one of the show’s trademark musical numbers as Dr. Doofenshmirtz raps “There’s a Platypus Controlling Me” at a junkyard rave his daughter Vanessa is attending.
Did I mention that the show requires a healthy sense of the absurd to appreciate?
For the record, the rest of the episodes on the disc come from the show’s third season, and are:
- “Candace Disconnected/Magic Carpet Ride”
- “Ask a Foolish Question/Misperceived Monotreme”
- “Mommy Can You Hear Me?/Road Trip”
- “Perry the Actorpus”/”Bullseye!”
- “Escape from Phineas Tower/The Remains of the Platypus”
I could spend hundreds of words recounting plot lines, crazy inventions, Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s nutty “-inator” inventions, and the many, many recurring jokes in each episode, but this would probably defeat the purpose of the show. As I mentioned, Phineas and Ferb is a formula, and the thing about TV shows based on a formula is that they don’t lend themselves to capsule reviews too well. Law and Order is a show that is probably even more formulaic than Phineas and Ferb, and you won’t narrow anything down by describing an episode of Law and Order by summarizing it as, “This is the episode where the cops chase down false leads before arresting a suspect, and the D.A.’s have to work around slimy defense lawyers and procedural errors. Jerry Orbach also makes a wisecrack or two.” Going into more detail nearly mandates a line-by-line recap, which isn’t anywhere near as much fun as just watching the show. The good news is by this time in its run, Phineas and Ferb has become the Law and Order of animated kids comedy, spinning its formula into clever, witty, and well done stories celebrating the boundless energy and creativity of kids and the power of a semi-aquatic mammal in a fedora to defeat the somewhat petty forces of evil. Every episode gets a funny song or two. Everything else is just in the execution, and that’s really best experienced. The best thing I can say is that these episodes of Phineas and Ferb are well worth the time to experience.
The Perry Files is a noticeable improvement over the past two DVDs of the TV show, and is more akin to the two Phineas and Ferb movie DVDs. The full-frame presentation on those earlier episode compilations has given way to an anamorphic widescreen, and the video quality seems to have gotten a nice boost as well. The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, and gets the dialogue and the music across quite nicely. Those earlier discs hit a personal pet peeve by lumping each episode into a single chapter, but The Perry Files addresses that nicely with a sensible selection of chapter stops within each episode. Bonus features are still rather slight, though: “Nerves of Teal” is a brief collection of clips presented as an OWCA recruitment video, while “Platybus Tour” is a pretty vapid look at the giant trailer painted like Perry that kicked off a promotional tour last year. There is also a second disc containing a digital copy of the DVD (which, thankfully, uses iTunes rather than the clunky UltraViolet mechanism). However, the show’s sense of fun and creativity pervades the packaging of the DVD in small but entertaining ways. There are a few tiny Easter Eggs hidden away in the DVD menus, although not as many as were on the Very Perry Christmas or Across the 2nd Dimension DVDs. Disney has included a second disc containing a digital copy of the DVD, as well as a cute activity pack which includes a set of “Moods of Perry” fridge magnets, a tiny jigsaw puzzle, a “Where’s Waldo” style puzzle, a page of stickers, and a Perry postcard, all kept together in a Perry wrapper. The entire disc is also packed up in a cardboard sleeve that mirrors the interior disc wrapper, other than Perry’s lenticular eyes on the front.
I’ve long been annoyed at Disney’s benighted approach to TV on DVD for its animated properties, and it has earned a rightful amount of enmity from animation fans for abandoning series on DVD in mid-run or failing to capitalize on the DVD market at all. Phineas and Ferb falls into the latter category, and unfortunately, I can’t entirely exclude The Perry Files from that criticism. Despite its hefty load of excellent episodes and fun packaging, this is essentially a glorified “soccer mom” release, when the show’s popularity among kids and parents alike would seem to make bigger, better DVD or Blu-ray releases a sure thing. The Perry Files is a ton of fun and it’s better than nothing, it still feels like a bit of a letdown in the end.