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"Phineas and Ferb": Spawn of Frankenstein

by on February 1, 2008

I am the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son. The blood of a dozen gypsy fortunetellers flows through my veins. Criswell was my uncle’s cousin’s third husband. I have second sight so bad I need a special prescription, and the DMV won’t let me drive 48 hours before an election, a major sports event, or new episodes of Lost, lest I glimpse something so shocking I send my car cartwheeling through the front door of someone’s house.

So you can take it to the bank when I predict that Phineas and Ferb, Disney Channel’s new animated series, will be a major hit. It steals from bunches of the other hit shows, and it steals the worst but most inexplicably popular bit of them, too, and it handles those bits even more badly, which logically must mean that it does them even better, right? So how can it miss?

The “Phineas” and “Ferb” of the title are a pair of stepbrothers of that indeterminate age contemporary animation writers think pre-teen boys inhabit: you know, the one where they could be six or they could be twelve and you have no idea which they are, even though no one in real life has ever mistaken even a tall six-year-old for a short twelve-year-old. They live in the midst of a featureless and apparently endless summer vacation and stave off boredom with strange inventions and schemes: building shrink rays and submarines, or monster trucks and snowmaking machines. In “Flop Starz,” the lead-off episode, they even contrive to run through the life cycle of a one-hit pop singer (breakout hit, temper tantrum, descent into elevator music, and reunion tour) in the course of one day. Their successes are easy, their failures nonexistent. “Aren’t you wondering if we’re a little young to be building a submarine,” Phineas smugly asks the delivery man who’s just dropped off a subatomic shrinking module in the episode “Journey to the Center of Candace.” “Yes. Yes, I am,” he replies in a worried voice. “Yeah, we get that a lot,” Phineas snarks back with the half-hooded eyes deployed by people who think they’re cool and are dying for you notice how cool they seem to be.

The boys never defeat themselves, so the conflict in each show, if “conflict” you want to call it, comes from their older sister, Candace, a hypertense teenager who is always threatening to “tell Mom” what they’re up to, but is always just seconds too late at getting their ever-oblivious mother to the scene of the latest shenanigan. (Maybe she’s related to Lou Costello.) Not that there seems to be any reason for her to “tell” anyone what’s going on—the two boys are so effortlessly in control of their game that there is never any hint it could spin out of control. Build a snowbank the size of the Matterhorn (complete with ski lifts and chalets) in the back yard? Yeah babe, they do it, and then it melts before the ‘rents come back from antiquing. Chill.

Each episode also features a bizarre subplot involving the family pet, a platypus named Perry, who in a running gag has his own completely unrelated adventures as a secret agent battling the sinister Dr. Doofenshmirtz. The bad doctor, as his name suggests, is rather too incompetent at being a supervillain—or maybe he is too competent, since he takes the tropes (such as gloating over the hero after catching him in the elaborate trap) to an extreme that even Dr. Evil might find gratuitous. If Phineas and Candace are playing Fairly OddParents without the fairy godparents, then Perry and Doofenshmirtz are playing Kim Possible without Kim and Ron.

That is the basic problem with the show, which I alluded to above. Everything is derivative, but obviously so, and shorn of even the best features of what has been stolen. So, each afternoon the two boys gin up an activity as impossible as anything devised by OddParents‘ Timmy Turner, but without the excitement or challenge or watching it go wrong. Their eternal victim, Candace, has all the of the shrieking hysteria of OddParents‘ Vicki, but none of the demented wickedness or ability to thwart her adversaries. It even lifts OddParents‘ most annoying tic, that weird, metronomic, “riff-joke-mug-riff-joke-mug” rhythm that eventually turns even the most humorous bits into monotonous exercises in so-called “comedic” timing. From Kim Possible it lifts and gratuitously inserts Spy-vs.-Spy absurdism without the character interplay that warms that show’s jokes. And from Family Guy (so widely has the miasma of that show seeped) it takes cutaway gags and the occasional flaming non sequitur: gag reflexes rather than actual humor. The dialogue is perfunctory; no one says anything funny or penetrating. It is full of ideas for funny lines, and it is rhythmically timed so as to sound like jokes are being delivered, but rarely is it shaped in a way that results in an actual joke. Engineering—and not precision engineering, either—replaces wit.

The show does have its bright spots. Like the rest of the characters, Dr. Doofenshmirtz rarely says anything genuinely funny, but co-creator Dan Povenmire voices him with such energy, and with such perfect timing, that you’ll laugh out loud even at the stuff that isn’t even supposed to be funny. (Povenmire has an endearing way of hitting certain comic notes by squeaking on just the right syllable.) There really isn’t enough to this character or these subplots to sustain more than a few minutes running time. But if trimmed down, The Adventures of Perry the Platypus and Dr. Doofenshmirtz might have made a fine bit of Dudley Do-Right or Peabody and Sherman-like sketch writing.

Visually, the show, while not awful looking, isn’t a great pleasure. Here, too, it imitates the rigid style of a Butch Hartman or Seth MacFarlane: the characters are basically silhouettes through which are filtered the standard, contemporary expression clichés. Everything is flat and angular but without any style. There is no energy to the animation. In short, it looks like a cartoon drawn by comedy writers.

The series’ most noticeable feature is its use of music: each episode comes with an original song or two and some kind of musical production number. In “Flop Starz,” for instance, it’s the parody pop song “Gitchee Gitchee Goo”; the boys’ winter-in-the-midst-of-summer playground gets the song “Swinter.” They are tuneful, but not especially memorable.

I don’t know where the idea of this show came from, but it feels like the product of committee thinking, an animated corpse stitched together from the contents of pilfered graves. That’s a pity, because there is probably a niche in the cartoon ecology for a show that marries the unstructured play of Ed, Edd, ‘n Eddy with the cosmic impossibilities of The Fairly OddParents—a show, in other words, about boys burrowing deeply into their warped and uninhibited imaginations. Phineas and Ferb, though, is about what grown ups imagine—what they imagine boys imagine and want.

But that’s the business too many networks—and Disney is not the worst offender—are in these days, and there is little reason to think it won’t work. Catch it, watch it, and support it, so that next year we can kick back and watch a ripoff of it.

Phineas and Ferb premieres on Friday, February 1, at 8:00pm (ET/PT) on The Disney Channel.

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