Thoughts on ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’

Past Entries:
-Star Wars
-The Holiday Special
-The Empire Strikes Back
-Return of the Jedi
-The Phantom Menace
-Attack of the Clones
-Revenge of the Sith
-The Force Awakens
-Rogue One
-The Last Jedi
-Solo

I wanted to end this series on a high note, so, despite the fact that it’s explicitly not canon (the opening crawl ends with “None of this is canon; just relax,” a disclaimer I wish all the recent Star Wars films carried), let’s talk about Phineas and Ferb Star Wars.

For those unfamiliar with the show, I’ll give a summary: Phineas and Ferb is a show about two genius step-brothers – cheery, out-going Phineas and taciturn, British Ferb – who, determined not to waste their summer vacation, spend each day doing something fantastic and impossible. They build rollercoasters in their backyard, go into space, become superheroes or pop stars for a day, and so on, in the company of their friends: super-cute girl scout Isabella (who has a not-so-secret crush on the perpetually oblivious Phineas), Bollywood math genius Baljeet, and secretly-cultured bully Buford. Meanwhile, their older sister, Candace, jealously tries to get them into trouble by telling their mom about their antics, except their projects always conveniently disappear at the last second, making Candace look insane. These disappearances are usually caused by side effects from the efforts of the “evil” Dr. Doofenshmirtz to take over the Tri-State Area with an endless series of ‘inators’ (drill-inator, turn-everything-evil-inator, rain-inator, etc.). He’s perpetually foiled by Special Agent Perry the Platypus…who maintains a secret identity as Phineas and Ferb’s beloved pet.

It sounds weird, and it is, but it’s a fantastic show in many, many ways that we don’t have time to get into here. For our purposes, the important thing is that in the show’s fourth and final season they were given the opportunity to do an hour-long crossover special with Star Wars, applying the show’s absurdist-yet-sincere tone to the Star Wars universe.

 I’ve written about this one before, so there will be quite a bit of overlap here, but I wanted to go into more detail about why I think this special is the best piece of Star Wars content to come out of the move to Disney.

Rather than attempting to simply re-create the story of Star Wars with Phineas and Ferb characters (e.g. Phineas as Luke, Ferb as Han, Isabella as Leia, etc.), the special takes a rather more creative and bold approach. It posits that versions of the Phineas and Ferb cast exist in the Star Wars universe and played an unseen, but crucial role during the events of the original film. This allows the original to stand more or less untouched (apart from one or two sight gags, the special doesn’t violate the continuity of the original film at all, which is frankly very impressive in itself) while also letting them tell their own story alongside it.

The plot goes that Perry the Rebelpus was the agent who stole the Death Star plans (from the ‘Empire Administration offices:’ a star destroyer with an office building stuck on top). Meanwhile, Phineas and Ferb are moisture farmers who live next door to Luke Skywalker, but unlike him are perfectly content with their lot on Tatooine, making the most of every day in typical Phineas and Ferb fashion. In fact, they’re too content: the special cleverly foreshadows that the boys’ easy-going satisfaction with their lot in life might not be the best thing for them long-term, and that they ought to leave their comfort zone sooner rather than later.

This is precipitated when they run into R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. Realizing what they have, the boys chase after Luke and the others to try to restore what they lost, taking up with Isabella the smuggler (who is by far the most detached from her canon personality) and repeatedly crossing paths with Candace, an overzealous, underappreciated stormtrooper (who is accompanied by fellow troopers Buford and Baljeet, evidently the dregs of the Imperial military).

Meanwhile, on the “fully operational Death Star,” we meet the evil ‘Darth Enshmirtz,’ the Death Star’s original designer, which, of course, is why it has a self-destruct mechanism (this joke is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One, where it’s revealed that that is the canon explanation for why it was so easy to destroy). In typical Doof fashion, he’s bitter at not being appreciated for his work and so plans to build a new doomsday device to become the top Sith.

So, the first thing to note is that, even though it’s a spoof, the special actually puts in the effort to tell its own story, with its own character arcs, progression of events, and themes. Where The Force Awakens was just an awkward retread of the original, Phineas and Ferb comes up with an original story that works on its own terms…and does so while literally being a retread of the original. Thus, instead of a character discontented with his lot and yearning for something more, this special gives us two characters who are content, but who probably shouldn’t be and end up pushed out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to more important matters.

What’s more (and again, unlike The Force Awakens), this character line continues through to the end of the story and is reflected in the other characters. Phineas and Ferb end the story having given up their peaceful life on Tatooine, but having also found something worth believing in. They’ve expanded their lives beyond the narrow scope that we found them in.

Early on there’s a scene where their parents actually try to get them to go off somewhere and see more of galaxy, expand their horizons. When Phineas shrugs the suggestion off, saying they’ve got everything they need, their father mutters, “Wait until they find out there are no girls on this planet.” This ties into their meeting Isabella, who takes them into space to follow the Millennium Falcon, and has a payoff when she kisses Phineas at the very end. The character thread is established, given a clear ‘tell’ (in the form of girls), and pays off when Phineas, having grown beyond his narrow home world, receives a kiss from Isabella to drive home what he had been missing.

(The kiss is preceded by Isabella double-checking that they’re not related, in a funny reference to Luke and Leia’s relationship, but also motivated by the late-game revelation that Candace is Phineas’s long-lost sister. So, it’s both a nod to the fans and completely motivated in story).

This is the sort of thing The Force Awakens was missing with Rey: she was waiting for her parents, then was told they’re not coming back, then goes off to find Luke and be trained as a Jedi. The final point doesn’t tie into the first one, and none of it ties into the rest of the plot involving the super-Death Star.

Speaking of which, we have Darth Enshmirtz’s new super-weapon, the Sith-Inator, which makes whoever it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force, driving them evil in the process.

Now, it’s largely played for laughs as a typical Doof ‘inator,’ with him giving a catchy musical number about how he’ll “no longer be the lowest of the Darths” and fantasizing about choking Imperial officers and impressing the Emperor. But the idea itself is actually kind of cool, especially once it hits Ferb and he applies a more serious approach to it (we’ll come back to it, but Darth Ferb is one of the special’s most impressive accomplishments. It can’t have been easy to make Ferb actually intimidating, but man do they pull it off).

Having just come off a re-watch of the films, I think a weapon like this actually could work in canon: it would just multiply or add midichlorines to the bloodstream, but such an unnatural process and sudden surge of power would of course heavily incline one to the Dark Side. In any case, despite the absurdist tone of the special, I could see an entire trilogy being built around that kind of weapon: something that could turn an ordinary person into a powerful Force User inclined to the Dark Side. That’s both a lot more creative and a lot more insidious than just another planet buster, and without the logistical problems of just how the heck they made the darn thing. Can you imagine a trilogy where the new Republic suddenly found itself faced with a whole army of near-Vader level Sith?

Basically, in telling a joke for a cartoon special Dan Provenmire and Jeff Marsh (the creators of Phineas and Ferb) came up with a much better plot for a new Star Wars trilogy than all the highly-paid writers that the Disney studio could muster could come up with over the course of several years for their massively-expensive tent-pole film series. Just think about that.

What’s more, the device sets up an extremely tense and emotionally charged confrontation between Phineas and Ferb (all the more so for fans of the show, since this is something we never would have expected to see). The whole set up, with Ferb’s implacable hostility and Phineas’s desperate attempts to reach him even as they duel with lightsabers works very well. And again, they set it up even in the context of the special by showing us just how close the brothers are, which further lets us feel just how wrong and evil the Dark Side is if it can threaten a friendship like that.

(Meanwhile, they also make a very funny joke about how lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical: “Oh, we’re allowing modifications?”).

The fight ends up involving Perry and Candace as well, so now let’s talk about Candace as the stormtrooper. Once again, this goofy cartoon thoroughly embarrasses the multi-million-dollar blockbuster. Candace, like Finn, is a stormtrooper who ends up defecting to the Rebels. However, in her case, it’s an actual character arc: we spend a good deal of time with her, Buford, and Baljeet as stormtroopers, and even though it’s in the midst of a goofy subplot where they’re assigned to get socks for Darth Vader (which leads to some great gags, such as Baljeet saying ‘socks’ to the tune of the Imperial March and a store on Tatooine called ‘Tall, Darth, and Handsome’), we do get to see things from a stormtrooper point of view and get a sense for what working for the Empire was like.

Just the fact that Candace describes Rebels as “cruel, heartless sub-humans who are messing up the galaxy” gives her more depth that Finn ever had (I’m also kind of surprised they got away with the term ‘sub-humans’ in a kids’ show). She has a perspective informed by her training; a reason why she thinks she’s on the right side. She actually believes in the Empire, despite the mistreatment she receives from it.

There’s a very fun song where Candace sings about why she’s proud to serve in the Empire: “Now I’m a bad mama-jama and I rock a mean helmet / if I see a Rebellion then you know I’m gonna quell it / I’m a certified, full-blown, armor-wearing zealot / and it feels so good to know I’m always right!” Again, this gives us a very believable sense of how the rank-and-file Emperor troops view the war, which we never got in the films, even when they actually have a defecting stormtrooper as a main character.

Then, when she turns, it’s not just because she suddenly “makes a choice” for no reason: something happens that blatantly contradicts her beliefs, making her question them for the first time. The scene where she turns is actually quite striking; when she asks Buford and Baljeet, “We’re the good guys, right?” there’s genuine uncertainty in her voice (some nice vocal work by Ashley Tisdale there). And, believably enough, once she starts to question her assumptions, then she starts to realize other things that didn’t fit into her image of the Empire (“Didn’t we just blow up a planet?” “Yes, that is sort of hard to justify, morally”). Again, it’s mostly played for laughs, but it’s still a genuine arc. The characters have clear motivations for what they do that make sense in the context of the story rather than being dictated by the script. Even in the midst of all the absurdist humor, they act like human beings.

Likewise, Isabella goes through much the same story arc as Han Solo, but again, it works. We meet her as a cynical loner who snaps at Phineas that “this isn’t a friendship, it’s a spaceship, so don’t invade mine.” Then, as she sees the loyalty the brothers have for each other, she starts to feel the desire to do likewise.

There’s a scene near the end where she bumps into Han Solo at a bar and they each prod each other into doing the right thing. Goofy as it is to have Han Solo talking smack with a little girl, it kind of works. Certainly I can much easier buy Han having a rivalry with Isabella than I can him abandoning his wife and son and losing the Millennium Falcon. I can almost imagine that it actually did go down like that, with Han trying to distract himself with a drink, but being challenged on abandoning his friends. Dang it, it’s a good scene; for all the absurdity and cartoon logic, it works.

Speaking of humor, it’s classic Phineas and Ferb: very smart, but very silly at the same time. Like when two Rebel technicians discover that R2 doesn’t actually have the plans, their first plan is, “We’ll blame Jar Jar!” Then there’s a bit where two of the Imperial officers are talking and one starts making fun of Vader, then trolls the other by pretending to choke (not only is that funny, but I can actually picture the Imperial officers doing that sort of thing). Another great gag has Darth Enshmirtz gloating about how valuable his timeshare on Alderann has become, while in the background…

Likewise the great Phineas and Ferb dialogue is present in full force: “You see? You paint a big red ‘X’ on the floor, people will stand on it.” “And you thought we were gonna die in space!” “You go see if that kid’s evil yet.” “Not a bad set: one death, one dismemberment. Not bad for a Tuesday.” I want to say there are more quotable lines in this hour-long special than in all the Disney ‘Star Wars’ films put together, with the possible exception of Rogue One.

Yet, as indicated, the show’s trademark sincerity is equally on display, as in the aforementioned battle between Phineas and Ferb, or Phineas’s genuinely shocked reaction when he learns about the Death Star (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

Then, near the end, there’s a moment where the main characters are standing on the Death Star, expecting to die, and they just kind of accept it, with Phineas saying that at least they went out for something they can believe in. Again, genuine human emotion and human reactions, even in the midst of all this absurdity, and a real, coherent plot with actual character arcs.

I also like that, though this is Phineas and Ferb, the writers didn’t try to shoehorn the standard show plot into ‘Star Wars.’ The classic catchphrases – “You guys are so busted!” “Whatchya doin’?” and so on – are present, but in contexts that make sense in the story. They don’t, for instance, have Linda as an Imperial officer that Candace is trying to ‘bust’ the boys to. They have this story to tell, and they tell it, working in references to the show where it makes sense, but not forcing it. Likewise, the Phineas and Ferb characters really do work in their roles: Candace’s misguided zealotry is perfect for a stormtrooper, Doof as a low-level Sith wannabe, Perry as a rebel agent and so on. Again, Isabella is a little jarring just because she’s so different from her usual character, but she works in the role (I especially like how her goggles take the place of her trademark hair bow).

Above all, it’s abundantly clear that the writers loved Star Wars and respected it. Even as they’re using the material for jokes, they still evince a thorough knowledge of the world and appreciation for the story and characters. Luke, Han, and Leia aren’t in it much, but they’re recognizably themselves when they are. When Luke chats with Phineas and Ferb about their modified speeder, it does feel like something Luke might do. And when Phineas says that he and Ferb have ‘Jedi lessons’ with Obi-Wan every Tuesday, it’s a gag, but it also makes sense for Obi-Wan’s character that if there were a couple of Force-sensitive kids nearby he would try to train them. And again, it sets up the duel at the climax (I also like that they made the choice not to have Obi-Wan present outside a silent cameo, apparently recognizing they didn’t have the resources to capture Sir Alec Guinness’s performance).

There are a lot of little jokes showing “the other side” of events in the original film. We see Han’s abortive attempt to bluff the guards over the com-link from the perspective of the officers receiving his message, for instance (“Aw, I was just getting into that conversation!”), and we get to see just what that garbage monster thing was and what it was doing (“That not trash, dummy, that’s a guy!”).

When I first saw this special, I wasn’t expecting to like it that much. I loved Phineas and Ferb, but the idea of crossing over with Star Wars seemed a step too far. But the moment the first notes of the opening song ‘Tatooine’ started playing, with Phineas and Ferb singing about how much they love their home, I knew it was going to work and I enjoyed every minute of it. It works best if you’re already a fan of both Phineas and Ferb and Star Wars, and I don’t know how it would play to someone unfamiliar with the show, but for me it’s easily my favorite ‘Star Wars’ story to come out of the move to Disney.

How to Write Stupid Characters

Writing my Flat and Complex Characters post, describing the flaws in how Launchpad is written, it struck me that a major problem with him and similar (again, Soos from Gravity Falls) is that their stupidity is done in a very lazy way: they simply say or do whatever is most inappropriate or most idiotic, and yeah we laugh, but it’s not very interesting and doesn’t make for engaging characters. Again, the characters are just being clowns, just trying to make you laugh.

I remember Roger Ebert wrote something that’s always stuck with me. Commenting on A Fish Called Wanda he said, “It’s not funny to watch someone being ridiculous: it’s funny to watch someone do the next logical thing and have it turn out ridiculous.”

Just having people do stupid things for the sake of doing stupid things may get a laugh, but it won’t make the audience want to come back.

So, what’s an example of a stupid character written in a smart way? One of the best is the evil Doctor Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb.

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Now, this is a very, very smart show, and it’s full of very smart characters: characters who trade jokes about the Trojan War, or existential philosophy, or advanced physics (one song contains the lyrics: “sometimes photons behave like a wave, but they’re particles when you reflect ‘em”). Even the muscle-headed bully is multi-lingual and quotes Voltaire. About the only genuinely stupid major character is Doctor Doofenshmirtz (Candace is a debatable case, since she’s more immature and obsessive than actually stupid). But even Doof’s not just a complete idiot oblivious to the world around him; he’s what we might call stupid in a smart way.

In the first place, there’s the just the fact that Doofenshmirtz is functional. He’s an idiot, but he can take care of himself and understands basic concepts and doesn’t need to be practically led by the hand by the other characters (contrast, say, Andy from Parks and Recreation). That’s another way of saying that his stupidity is limited. It applies in certain situations and not in others. Actually, he sometimes makes fairly astute observations, like when he comments on the pointlessness of making resolutions you have no intention of keeping, or when he points out that Perry’s latest escape makes no sense. And, as noted in a previous post, some of his gripes are completely legitimate (e.g. he built a functional laser canon for his childhood science fair, yet lost to a baking soda volcano).

But more important is the fact that Doof’s stupidity is comprehensible. You can follow his thought process, which is usually fairly reasonable except that he’s missed a glaringly obvious factor. For instance, at one point he recounts how he once tried to take over the Tri-State Area with an army of robots. Since he always puts a self-destruct button on everything he makes, he decided the best way to prevent anyone actually pressing it would be to put it somewhere no one could possible reach; the bottom of their feet.

You can see the logic there: no one could reach the self-destruct button there, which means his robots would be practically unstoppable…except for the obvious problem (“And…march!” *BOOM!*).

Or when a new building blocks his view of the drive-in theater across the street, Doof decides to invent a machine to teleport the entire building to a random location…rather than moving his chair to the next window (if he did that, the lamp cord wouldn’t reach, you see).

In other words, Doof‘s stupidity tends to revolve around severely overcomplicating things and missing the obvious. Likewise, he tends to obsess over silly or minor things, like blinking street signs or pelicans, or the kid who beat him at shadow puppets as a child.

A few things to note about all of this. First, allowing for the subjectivity of humor, it’s rather deeper and more sophisticated comedy than just having Doof say or do something idiotic. Because most of us can recognize Doof’s mindset: we’ve all overreacted to silly things, or made simple problems way too complicated because we missed an obvious factor or didn’t want to have to do some specific chore. Doof’s stupidity is something almost all of the audience can relate to, which both makes it much funnier and makes Doof himself a more engaging character.

Relating to that is this brand of stupidity makes sense with regards to Doofenshmirtz’s personality. He’s established to be an emotionally-stunted eccentric genius. Thus, overcomplicating and missing the obvious fits his mind perfectly, as does his obsessive pettiness. Even the fact that he can simultaneously be stupid enough to forget the existence of boats and brilliant enough to bend reality to his whim is consistent with his characterization.

Thus, Doofenshmirtz’s stupidity isn’t just comedy, but fits his character as it’s been established. It’s not the sum-total of his personality, only one notable element that harmonizes with all the rest and influences his reactions in an understandable way.

So, to sum up, a smartly written stupid character has a recognizable thought process, his stupidity fits his established character, and it can’t apply always and in every situation, nor can it be the entirety of the character.

Doofenshmirtz and Identity Politics

Phineas and Ferb is one of those shows that, though simple on the surface, lends itself to endless fascinating interpretations. Like so many great works of fiction, it tells the truth merely by trying to tell a good story.

One of the chief themes of the show is the balance between childhood and maturity: Phineas and Ferb are trying to make the most of their childhood – symbolized by the summer vacation – by learning as much as possible, making as many friends as possible, and having as much fun as possible. By contrast, the ‘evil’ Doctor Doofenshmirtz had a miserable childhood, which seems to have left him emotionally stunted and for which he is constantly trying to get revenge or recompense. Balancing the two extremes is Candace, who is caught between adolescence and adulthood and is unsure how she fits in either, which manifests by trying to ‘bust’ her brothers: a childish and immature attempt to assume adult responsibilities.

So, to sum up, Phineas and Ferb revel in their childhood, Candace makes a clumsy effort to grab at adult responsibility without understanding it, while Doofenshmirtz tries to avoid responsibility until he’s settled with his lost childhood. The final main cast member, Perry the Platypus, is more or less the only adult in the room, seeking to balance his responsibilities both to his family and to his job.

For today, I want to focus on Doofenshmirtz and his arc. This will involve spoilers, by the way.

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The thing about Doofenshmirtz is that he’s a man who is completely obsessed with his own backstory. He has an endless series of gripes from his miserable childhood, each of which he considers enough to justify a complicated and often enormous and dangerous machine. He once made a giant, spacefaring robot just so that he could show-up the kid who beat him at shadow-puppets. Another time he decided that if he had one more bad date, he’d use a ray to eliminate romantic feelings from the entire Tri-State Area (in the end, the only one it hit was his own date).

The interesting thing is that Doof truly did have a terrible childhood, and was treated completely unfairly by his parents. Many of his gripes are perfectly legitimate. This is a guy whose father forced him to work as a lawn gnome and then disowned him after he choked on the high-dive, and whose brother was given presents he didn’t even like just so that Doof wouldn’t have them. Basically, his parents took an inexplicable disliking to him at birth and made sure he knew it every day of his life (it actually would be pretty grim if it weren’t so hilariously over-the-top).

However, the show is clear that none of this justifies Doof’s behavior. Yes, he was treated inexcusably by his parents and peers, but that doesn’t mean he can take it out on the world in general, or even on the people who were involved after all this time. There’s one episode where he decides to get back at the girl who was always dumping water on him as a child by dropping a huge bucket of water on her party in the park. He discovers too late that, one, the girl’s grown up to be very attractive, and two, the dumping water had been her way of saying she liked him. When Doof awkwardly has to confess to what he was planning, she’s understandably infuriated, pointing out that she was eight years old and that it’s insane that he still holds a grudge at the age of forty.

But not only does Doofenshmirtz feel the need to seek revenge for past wrongs, he also feels entitled to getting his own way in the present. If he wants something, his first instinct is to cheat. If he’s going to run a telethon to trying to gin up more cash, he makes a machine to preempt every other show and force people to watch. Even when he has a real chance of winning legitimately, he still tries to stack the deck just to be sure (as seen when he entered his scrumptious family meatloaf recipe in the annual meatloaf contest and invented a “Rotten-inator” to ruin everyone else’s entries). His main overarching goal is to take over the entire Tri-State Area, mostly in order to show up his younger brother, Roger, who is the mayor and was far his parents’ favorite. Basically, he thinks he’s entitled to everything Roger has simply because Roger was treated well by their parents and he wasn’t. But the thing is, that wasn’t Roger’s fault, and even if he’s a bit of a pompous jerk that still doesn’t mean Doof has a right to anything. What Doof can justly lay claim to has nothing to do with how he or anyone else has been treated by life.

There’s an interesting bit where Doofenshmirtz invents a ‘Luck-inator’ to give himself unnaturally good luck, intending to use the reverse setting on Roger to give him bad luck. Roger, however, is unconcerned, basically saying that luck is a matter of attitude and forethought. Doof answers that he prefers to “Inator my way to success.”

In short, Doofenshmirtz feels that the injustices he suffered in childhood entitle him both to recompense for past wrongs and to success in the present, and that he can cheat his way to getting them regardless of how it affects other people (“Sure it’ll be hard for brain surgeons, and people driving…”). But the truth is that, though he has indeed suffered injustice, his actions are also unjust. He is either taking his anger out on people who had nothing to do with his problems, grasping at things he has no real right to, or trying to get back at people decades late for things they probably don’t even remember and which really weren’t all that important to begin with.

In the end, though, Doof’s heart isn’t really in his bad behavior. He’s not really evil; he just thinks he is because he believes that being evil is the proper response to a past like his. As his daughter Vanessa tells him in the finale, he’s “basically a nice guy who’s pretending to be evil.” He pushes away the idea of taking responsibility for his own life, of letting go of the past and focusing on the present, because he somehow feels that this would be betraying his backstory. The fact that his heart isn’t in doing evil is shown by the fact that he seems to expect and even rely on Perry the Platypus foiling his schemes (he specifically designs his traps so that Perry can get out of them with a little effort), and that whenever he teams up with genuinely evil villains, he very quickly turns against them. Unlike his rival, Rodney, who is truly evil and tries to cause real harm, Doofenshmirtz’s schemes mostly amount to the nature of childish pranks. It’s all just his confused attempt to find satisfaction for the wrongs he suffered in the past.

Now, I think you might see where I’m going with this: Doof is, in his own way, in much the same position as just about any ‘marginalized group:’ smarting over past injustices and expecting some kind of recompense as well as smooth sailing in the future to make up for it. The trouble is, life doesn’t work like that. Past injustices suffered do not ‘cancel out’ present injustices committed. Nor does having suffered entitle you to, well, anything except sympathy. Recompense can be demanded of an individual who has wronged you – you take my money, I can demand it back. You insult me I can demand an apology – but not of whole societies. This isn’t to belittle what has been suffered, only to say that creating even more injustice is not the path to healing.

Doof’s healing doesn’t come from seeking revenge or finally beating his brother: when he does take over the Tri-State Area in the finale, he finds it unsatisfactory. Healing comes when he finally decides to let go of his past and focus on what he has: his beloved daughter, his friends, and satisfying work. When we look in on him ten years hence, he’s so happy that he has to make an inator when he wants to experience a midlife crisis.

Identity politics, you see, aren’t evil just because they divide people: they also take people’s eyes off of the things that can actually improve their lives and fix them on things that will never bring satisfaction and which probably can’t even be cured. The endless and ridiculous expansion of things to feel aggrieved by only serves to demonstrate how futile such efforts are. And, of course, since you can’t solve a problem that depends on personal interpretation, there will always be a justifying excuse; you can always say “ah, but if only we eliminate x, y, and z, everything will be fine. They don’t want us to because they hate you. It’s only one more proof…”

Interestingly, the genuine evils Doofenshmirtz has suffered in the past lead him to take everything unpleasant that happens to him as just one more injustice. Having honestly been treated horribly and unfairly, he takes any and every setback, offense, or even just annoyance as a personal attack. Again, similar to how sources of ‘racism’ grow ever more ridiculous and petty (though even Doofenshmirtz never saw coded insults in his dinner) . People who have suffered genuine injustice tend to expect injustice and see it everywhere, which ironically leads them to commit injustices in their turn.

This is one of the biggest problems with Identity Politics: it simply ignores and excuses this phenomenon. Identity Politics, or critical theory essentially would argue that Doof is perfectly justified in, say, shooting a giant tire at the guy who ran over his foot. Because he was wronged, that means he cannot do wrong, or that any wrong he does is really the fault of his parents or brother. But not only does this excuse and encourage Doof’s harmful behavior, but it actually denies him the possibility of improving his own lot. And since what his parents did is in the past, they can’t undo it, even if they wanted to, meaning that it’s not a means to achieve anything, only to prop up an ultimately intolerable situation.

Doofenshmirtz spends almost the whole series trying to force the world to conform to his wishes, whether it wants to or not. His triumph comes when he realizes that he doesn’t have to; he has to change his own perspective and actions. He overcomes his past suffering by ceasing to allow it to control him.

 

Why ‘Phineas and Ferb Star Wars’ is the Best Disney Star Wars

It is kind of a sad commentary on the state of the once-venerable franchise that the best and most satisfying work to come out of Star Wars’s move to Disney is a Phineas and Ferb special. Granted, Rogue One was pretty good, though it wasn’t well paced and the characters were mostly pretty bland. And I haven’t seen The Last Jedi, so maybe it’ll…you know what, I’m actually going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think it’ll make much difference.

So, what does Phineas and Ferb do right that the other recent Star Wars films fail to do?

First of all there’s the fact that, though it’s a spoof, it nevertheless manages to pay sincere homage to the original while also doing something new. Unlike Force Awakens, which was a lamer retread of the first film, PnF cook up their own storyline set in the Star Wars universe…and, just to compound the insult, they do it while literally retreading the first film.

The special posits versions of the Phineas and Ferb characters were present and played an unseen, but crucial role in the events of the first Star Wars. Phineas and Ferb live next door to Luke Skywalker on Tatoinne, but where Luke longs for something more the two brothers are perfectly content with their lot and spend their days making the most of their life on the desert planet. Until, that is, they run across R2-D2 and accidentally end up with the Death Star plans. So, while Luke, Obi-Wan, and the rest try to get R2 to the Rebels, thinking he has the plans, Phineas and Ferb race after them to try to get the plans back to them.

Thus, instead of a character who is dissatisfied and longs for more, he we have two characters who are satisfied, but are knocked out of their comfort zone and forced to attend to larger issues they hadn’t thought of (neatly foreshadowed in an early scene where their father tries to get them to go off the planet to experience the wider world). This is paralleled by both Candace – here an overzealous and underappreciated stormtrooper – and Isabella – here a rival smuggler to Han Solo, in a somewhat jarring departure from her normal characterization. All three sets of characters are more or less comfortable in their present lives, not realizing that those lives are unhealthy or unsuited for them, and over the course of the story are pulled out of their comfort zone and forced to re-evaluate their situation.

The one exception is Doofenshmirtz (here called ‘Darthenshmirtz’), an underappreciated scientist for the Empire and the actual designer of the Death Star (which, of course, is why it was so easy to destroy; it had a self-destruct button. This is even funnier in the wake of Rogue One’s revelation that that’s actually the canon explanation). Doof, in typical fashion, wants to cheat his way to greater respect and to that end has created a ‘Sith-Inator,’ which makes anyone it hits extremely attune to the Dark Side of the Force.

Now, I don’t know enough Star Wars lore to know if that fits the universe, but quite frankly, and setting aside Doof’s goofiness, that’s actually a pretty decent superweapon and a neat twist on the established elements. It sounds plausible given the setting, and it’s both more interesting and more insidious than just another planet buster. It’s mostly a gag, and primarily exists to set up a fight between Phineas and Ferb (the writers went on record saying evil mind-altering technology was literally the only way that could happen), but it’s a gag that evinces more real creativity than the whole of The Force Awakens, and one that honestly could have served for a whole trilogy.

It also sets up a genuinely emotional and tense confrontation playing on established themes of loyalty and ambition…while also making a joke about the way lightsabers keep getting more complicated and impractical (and they somehow made Ferb actually look scary, which is impressive in itself). That’s the thing: the special is a goof, but it’s a goof with honestly good storytelling.

Also the way the characters develop and change over the course of the special is really well done. Like Force Awakens we have a stormtrooper switching sides, but it’s done a lot better here. Candace has her perspective altered by experiencing something her training has taught her could not happen, letting in a bit of light that finally makes her question her point-of-view. And, equally believably, once she does that she quickly notices other things that didn’t fit with her assumptions (“didn’t we just blow up a planet?!” “Yes, that is sort of difficult to justify, morally”). Also, when she does change sides, she’s still kind of a badass and proves an effective ally, putting her stormtrooper skills to good use, rather than being a total ineffectual loser.

Likewise with Isabella’s story arc of learning to open up and care for Phineas and Ferb, both being impressed by their skills and attracted by their loyalty. It’s a standard character arc, of course, but it works. The progression is believable, much like Han’s progression in the first film was believable.

Speaking of which, I can much sooner buy Han Solo having a rivalry with Isabella and talking smack with her at a bar than I can buy him divorcing Leia and going back to smuggling after losing the Falcon and what the hell were they even thinking?! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Sorry. But, yeah, oddly enough Han and Isabella’s conversation and mutual prodding actually sort of works and I can almost imagine it really going down like that.

Also, it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s funny. It moves quickly and the characters are all engaging and likable. It let’s us know how and why the Empire is bad and makes us feel what’s at stake even as it uses the material for jokes. They play Alderan’s destruction for dark humor, but it’s balanced by Phineas’s stunned reaction when he finds out what the Death Star can do (“I never thought the Empire would go that far!”).

So, yeah, the silly parody in a Saturday morning cartoon special was better, more interesting, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original than the ultrabudget sequels.

 

Mission Marvel and Legit Heroes

On the subject of genuine heroics, allow me to present Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel, a crossover special where the Phineas and Ferb cast meet a bunch of Marvel characters.

Now, this sounds like it wouldn’t work; goofy surreal kid’s show meets semi-serious comic book heroes. And it’s not perfect, or even one of the better PnF specials (which frankly says more about just how good the others are than about this one), but there are some key elements that it does really well.

First of all, the difference in tone is actually the main point of the special, with the PnF characters being a little disturbed by confronting a situation much more serious than they’re accustomed to, while the Marvel characters are confused by the more absurdist tone of Phineas and Ferb (it’s actually similar to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein now that I think about it).

By the way, this blending of tones is something a lot of crossovers miss: that it’s not enough to put two different groups of characters together, you have to make it feel like a meeting of two distinct stories with their own special themes and emotional tones (Oddly enough, the best example of this I’ve seen yet is Freddy vs. Jason).

Another thing the special does really well is that it doesn’t just feel like a meeting of worlds, it feels like this is what a kid would hope meeting his heroes would be like. Phineas and Ferb is, in large part about childish imagination brought to life: kids who get to really do what other kids pretend to do. In this case, they get to hang out with some of their favorite heroes and even help them save the day.

But that’s that point: the heroes are still the dominant figures, with Phineas, Ferb, and the rest in support roles, because that’s exactly what a real kid would want. Kids don’t want to show up their heroes, but only to be able to feel worthy of them. The scenario here is perfectly suited to that, with the heroes temporarily deprived of their powers, requiring Phineas and Ferb’s help to get them back while trying to thwart a group of supervillains at the same time. So, the kids can legitimately contribute without diminishing either the heroes or the villains, and the situation is desperate enough that it’s acceptable for the heroes to bring the kids into battle (once the heroes get their powers back, the kids stay out of the fight).

Which brings me to another point: the heroes are genuinely heroic. Remember what I said about legit heroes? The superheroes here count (actually, from what I can tell, the heroes are more heroic here than in the actual comics at the moment).

The heroes here are constantly behind it: either lacking powers or having the wrong powers. Yet again and again, they still step up to the plate and go into battle. Even when they clearly have no chance of winning, they still saddle up to do whatever they can because, as they explain, that’s what they do. Their powers aren’t what makes them heroes, their willingness to do the right thing whatever the cost is.

This also inspires the kids, who join them in battle despite being obviously outclassed. Phineas and Ferb discover early on that their tech is woefully inadequate to fighting real supervillains, but in the final battle they put on their damaged Beak suit and go in anyway. Like any good adventure story, the heroes are constantly being dumped on in one way or another, all the way up until the end, where the heroes and the kids they inspired engage in a mad dog-pile scramble just trying anything and everything they can think of to keep the villains from winning for as long as possible (the action sequences are fantastic, by the way, with really fast, highly detailed animation that encourages multiple viewings to catch everything going on).

So, Phineas and Ferb absolutely nailed what people love about comic book heroes, just another example of how deceptively excellent that show is.

A Quick Word on the Beauty of ‘Phineas and Ferb’

I’m rewatching Phineas and Ferb again at the moment and just finished the episode Magic Carpet Ride. During the song sequence, it suddenly occurred to me that this really is a microcosm of just what makes this show so special. It’s that it manages to be both absurdist and sincere at the same time. It simultaneously makes you laugh and warms your heart.

The scenario here is that Phineas and Ferb’s father has been watching his favorite childhood show and laments that the ‘magic carpet’ tie in wasn’t as magical as he remembers. So the boys turn the living room carpet into a flying carpet to give him a real magic carpet ride. What follows is a genuinely beautiful sequence of them flying around town, accompanied by a song that includes lyrics like “it’s aerodynamics are highly advanced / and its weave is so tight and so soft.”

Seeing the kids casually flying around town on a carpet, complete with sofa and TV, is obviously absurd and prompts some ridiculous imagery. But it also has some really sweet scenes like Phineas and Isabella sitting together in rapturous delight at the view below, not to mention the whole thing was two kids trying to cheer up their father.

This blend of the sincere and the ridiculous is pretty much in the show’s DNA. Even the animation style hits this balance of being both surreal and actually very beautiful at times. The scenes of them flying around the town are gorgeous and enlivened by little moments of innocent emotional power.

I don’t like a lot of modern art, like Picasso and Duchamp and so forth. I think their work is frankly hideous. The excuse generally made is that they did something different and original, but something like Phineas and Ferb puts the lie to that plea. The animators here create a unique, stylized, and surreal art style, but do it without sacrificing beauty. Likewise the writers make something creative, funny, and satirical without being in the least cynical or mean spirited.

So, this goofy kid’s show puts the lie to the vast majority of modern and post-modern art and literature; you can be as different, creative, and original as you like without being nihilistic, ugly, or mean. That’s why I have little patience for works that strike me as such, because, well, it could have been otherwise if the creators had wished it. The fact that they didn’t says something about them and their work that I don’t care for. And as long as there are works like Phineas and Ferb around, I’ll know where to go instead.

 

Thoughts on ‘Gravity Falls’

Gravity Falls is one of those shows that I’d heard raved about from several different quarters as being a very smart, very funny, and very mature kids’ show with a lot of dark, creative imagery. So, when I had some extra time (read: was procrastinating again) I watched through it.

My reactions were surprisingly pretty mixed. I enjoyed a lot of it; when it’s good, it’s very good. The trouble is that, like the little girl with the little curl, when it’s bad it’s horrid.

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The set up is that two twin siblings, Dipper and Mabel, are going to spend the summer with their great-uncle (‘Grunkle’) Stan; a grouchy con-man who runs a tourist trap ‘mystery shack’ in the rural town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. The town, as the two kids soon discover, is a nexus point of everything weird, supernatural, and unexplained, and they try to uncover the mysteries of the place while dealing with the pressures of growing up.

So, a good set up with lots of potential. Now what else is good about it? Well, first of all, the characters are pretty fun. I can’t say I was especially engaged by any of them (with one exception), but they’re interesting and pleasant company for the most part. The story arc of the two kids growing into adolescence is pretty engaging and realized through some nicely drawn subplots. The relationships are really good too; between the siblings, between the kids and their uncle, between Dipper and Wendy the girl who works the counter, and so on.

The stand out, for me, was the uncle, who’s a fantastic character. When I look back on the show, his scenes are chiefly what I remember and his relationship with the kids was probably the best thing about it. He’s an unabashed crook, grump, drinker, and scoundrel, but nevertheless you know he loves his kids and would do absolutely anything for them. His interactions with the two kids, especially with Mabel, are the most emotionally gripping elements of the story and actually brought a lump to my throat once or twice.

The atmosphere of the show is great as well. There’s a constant underlying sense of secrecy and uncertainty, playing into the mystery element. You’re almost never sure quite what’s going on, who to trust, or what’s going to happen next.

I also like the creativity shown in the creature designs and the supernatural effects (my favorite being an island that turns out to be a floating head). As that indicates, it’s often very dark and pleasantly frightening: sure to give sensitive young viewers nightmares. I liked how it was willing to push the scary and disturbing imagery, and that they weren’t afraid to place the kids in real danger, making for an unusually harsh tone for a kid’s show.

Speaking of danger, the main villain is fantastic: kind of like Freddy Krueger if he were a used car salesman. The exact rules of what he could and couldn’t do were kind of vague, but that’s kind of the point, and he was wonderfully evil in a delightful way.

Oh, and the show is often very funny, with a gloriously dark sense of humor. For instance, an early joke is that Stan’s last outing with the kids involved them helping him counterfeit money (“The county jail was cold”). Basically, any time we see one of his schemes, it’s pretty much hilarious. Mabel’s pretty funny too with her super-cheery, not-quite-all-there perspective, and Dipper gets some great reactions as the nearest-to-sane character present.

Okay, so the show has good characters, great atmosphere, it’s creative, funny. Sounds good. And a lot of the time it is. But the rest of the time…

The first problem is that, though the show has great atmosphere, the animation is kind of hideous. The characters are all lumpy and distorted, and there’s a dreary, unpleasant tone to the art style. And it’s not a matter of being stylized either: a lot of the characters in Phineas and Ferb have much weirder designs than this (Phineas’s head is a triangle), but they don’t create the same impression of ugliness. Maybe it’s because the characters there are done in broad geometric shapes, or because the colors are brighter, but the animation is much more pleasing to the eye than anything here. Gravity Falls is kind of unpleasant to look at, especially the more you watch of it.

Another thing is that I found the writing oddly slapdash. For instance, sometimes plotlines are more taken for granted than actually established. Grunkle Stan supposedly doesn’t believe any of the kids’ stories about the strange goings on. I may have missed something, but I recall maybe one or two scenes of him reacting this way, and both very early on. Then in the opening of the second season it’s suddenly a twist that he knew all along. But…they hadn’t made anything of his supposed incredulity. It didn’t affect the story in any way, at least not that I can remember (contrast in Milo Murphy’s Law, where Bradley’s status as a jealous sourpuss is well-established even though he’s not in very many episodes). And there are a few things like that; elements that are just kind of assumed, but not really established and which don’t affect the story in any way until the writers just decide to resolve them.

Also, the characters don’t always behave believably. There’s a Halloween episode where the twins end up menaced by a Halloween spirit that threatens to eat them if they don’t give him a certain amount of candy by the end of the night (downing a passing child just to prove it’s serious). Dipper spends the night embarrassed to be trick-or-treating and wanting to ditch the effort to go to a party with Wendy. Even in cartoon terms, that’s not believable behavior: he could be entertainingly irritated at being frightened into doing something he’d rather not, but he can’t be just shrugging off a death-threat from a supernatural monster. In other words, there has to be at least an element of fear in his behavior if the scenario is going to work, but there isn’t; he’s just annoyed and trying to find away to blow it off. The way they defeat the monster is stupid as well; just a cheap joke that feels like they were stuck for an ending.

That’s a problem that kind of keeps coming back throughout the show; as I said, the writers are willing to put the kids in real danger, but they don’t always act like they’re in real danger, or even in a cartoonishly inappropriate way. Half the time the characters just don’t seem to be taking their own predicament seriously: and not in an amusingly careless “I’ve seen it all” kind of way, but in a weird “doesn’t matter to me” way. This sort of thing rips me right out of the story: you can’t be both flippantly careless and darkly frightening at the same time because the two tones cancel each other out. It hits the right balance sometimes, but misses badly at others.

Again, contrast this with Phineas and Ferb. It’s a much brighter and cheerier show, and the characters there are very rarely in any danger, or even faced with serious consequences, but whenever they are they act like it. They still joke and banter, but when they need to be serious they get serious. For example, when Candace realizes her brothers have been abducted by an alien poacher, she immediately forgets all about ‘busting’ them and rushes to their rescue. Even as goofy and surreal as the show is, the characters consistently act in a believable fashion. The characters on Gravity Falls don’t, or at least not consistently.

Ironically this means Phineas and Ferb actually does a better job at creating a sense of danger and dread on the rare occasions it tries than this one does as a major part of its makeup. When zombie pharmacists are scarier than child-eating scarecrows, something has gone very wrong with the latter.

This is probably connected with another problem; the show is very cynical, which isn’t necessarily bad in itself, but it leads the characters to have kind of a myopic worldview. The thesis seems to be ‘the only good thing you can do is be there for your friends and family,’ which plays out in some very strange and kind of nasty scenes. There’s a bit near the end where one character can literally save the world with a single gesture…but he holds off because he’s angry that another character hasn’t shown him enough appreciation. Then the choices the kids make towards the end are likewise kind of…wrong. I can’t get into it without spoilers, but the overall point seemed kind of self-centered to me. Basically, the leads are very loyal to each other, which makes them likable, but it doesn’t seem to translate into either care for others in general or any sense of value for its own sake.

Related to this is that the show often rewards the characters in unearned ways just because the writers decide they should be rewarded. There’s a really stupid episode where Dipper and Mabel are hunting down a centuries-old conspiracy, and Mabel’s random, goofy behavior turns out to be the key to solving each riddle, because the guy who set the puzzle was just as goofy and random as she was, and “being silly is good.” No. Just…no. The hand the of the writers is brutally obvious throughout, rewarding Mabel for no other reason than that they wanted her to be right.

Again, contrast this with a similar situation in a better show. There’s an episode of My Little Pony where Rarity has to solve a mystery on Rainbow Dash’s behalf and apparently spends most of her time changing costumes and getting distracted by irrelevancies. But it turns out everything she focused on was vital to the case (the costumes not so much) and that, in classic detective fashion, she knew what she was doing the whole time. You see, Rarity was able to solve the mystery because she’s both intelligent and very attune to details: traits that obviously lend themselves to solving mysteries. On Gravity Falls, Mabel solves the mystery because she’s ‘silly’ and because her random, goofy behavior just happened to correspond with the mystery author’s random, goofy behavior, which only works because it was specifically set up that way. That’s the difference between an earned solution and a contrived one.

And there are quite a few episodes like that, where the writers are obviously just forcing things to go their preferred way, either because they’ve written themselves into a corner or because that’s just how they want it to be. So between that, the false-seeming behavior, and the often slapdash plotting, I don’t think I can call this a well-written show.

Then there are just stupid things: I praised the main villain, but the secondary one is just dumb and neither a consistent character nor a very entertaining one. There were a fair number of episodes that just plain didn’t work, or had a great set up that they completely undermined for a cheap gag.

In all this I think the central problem is the mindset behind the show. I don’t know anything about the creators, but the show seems to come from a very cynical, almost nihilistic point of view. I may be reading too much into it, but that’s the impression I was left with, though accompanied with some strong emotional connections to and between the characters and a lot of good humor and creativity.

I’ve spent a lot of time describing what’s wrong with Gravity Falls because its flaws are mostly structural, down under the surface and tricky to pin down. The show is superficially very strong, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny very well. Shows like Phineas and Ferb and My Little Pony are not only fun to watch, but get better the more you think about them. I’ve seen Phineas and Ferb all through at least three or four times and I’m still finding new things to like about it and new ideas to draw from it. Gravity Falls is generally fun to watch, but it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. The more I think about it, the more I see the flaws, the gaps, and the wrongheadedness in it, all the more so because it does have such a superficial shine to it that makes me annoyed to find it’s not as good as it tries to be.

I’m an inveterate re-watcher, so one of my main rubrics for judging just about any work of fiction is whether I want to see it again. Phineas and Ferb I wanted to re-watch as soon as it was over, since it left me so emotionally satisfied that I wanted to go back and see the whole thing again knowing where it was leading. Danny Phantom left me appreciative for the good parts, but with absolutely no desire to watch it again. Gravity Falls is somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to watch it again anytime soon, but I feel like I may at some point in the future. The good parts may just be good enough to tempt me back once more, at least to some episodes. It’s certainly a good show in a lot of ways, but I can’t say I liked it very much.

So, in the end, I have very mixed feelings about Gravity Falls. I liked a lot of it, and I disliked a lot of it, and on the whole it left me glad that I had seen it, but with a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.