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Why Is Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension So Good?

You may be thinking, Natalie, you’re a 22-year-old adult with grad schools to apply to … aren’t you a little old to be writing an in-depth analysis of a children’s film that came out over a decade ago?

Yes, yes I am.

And I’m going to put my summa cum laude undergraduate degree (with honors) to use to explain just why Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension is the best television movie ever made.

Phineas and Ferb is one of the most iconic children’s TV programs in recent history. The Disney Channel animated show centered around two young step-brothers—the titular Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher—who would build elaborate and fantastical inventions and go on adventures every day over their summer vacation. It ran for four seasons over about seven years, opening as the top-watched program for children ages 6-10 and 9-14 in its very first season, and consistently reaching millions of views for event episodes and season finales. 

Many people in my generation remember animated shows like Phineas and Ferb and Avatar: The Last Airbender fondly because they treated us like adults (albeit for slightly different age groups and with a great difference in tone). Phineas and Ferb used big words, featured (relatively) complex characters and relationships, and had a sense of meta-textual humor and snark while still being sincere. I have criticisms of the show—its too-casual racism being the main thing, particularly relating to one of the show’s supporting characters—but its replicable, easily adaptable premise and refusal to talk down to children is what made it a modern classic.

Phineas and Ferb say goodbye to their 2nd dimension counterparts and friends.

The Movie

Before Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension was released in 2011 to 7.6 million viewers (one of the highest-rated cable programs in the three years preceding and the second-highest watched telecast for children ever), the show had dipped its toes into longer narratives a few times before. The Season 2 finale “Summer Belongs to You!” was a two-episode spectacular that challenged the characters’ ability to hold a story four times the length of a normal episode—P&F stories were typically 11-13 minutes each, fitting two into each 22-minute episode separated by the commercial break. The film aired after the show’s third season, which had taken some of its biggest risks yet. There were multiple 22-minute narratives, and several “Alternate Universe” (or “AU”) episodes that dropped the P&F characters into caveman times, ancient China, and a medieval storybook, to name a few. What made the AU stories and two-part episodes so special was their ability to riff on the basic worldbuilding of Phineas and Ferb

The simple sitcom-y rules of the universe are the show’s best source of humor. Every day of summer, a few things have to happen, each matched to an iconic catchphrase:

  • Phineas and Ferb build an invention: “Ferb, I know what we’re going to do today!”
  • Isabella (the girl next door) asks them what they’re doing: “Whatcha doin’?”
  • Perry, their pet platypus, sneaks out to his day job as a secret agent for the Organization Without a Cool Acronym (OWCA): “Where’s Perry?”
  • Perry thwarts the evil scientist Dr. Doofenshmirtz in his attempts to build an “-inator” (goofy evil machine) and take over the Tri-State Area: “Curse you, Perry the Platypus!”
  • Candace, Phineas and Ferb’s teenage older sister, attempts to “bust” the boys to their mom: “Mom, you’ve got to come see what Phineas and Ferb have built in the backyard!”

Rinse and repeat. 

As the show attempted to keep its status quo at the end of each episode, it came up with various creative ways to mess with the formula over the years—Phineas and Ferb get busted, but it’s just Candace’s dream; Perry’s secret identity is discovered … by Candace’s best friend Stacy; Doof’s inator succeeds, but it’s not actually evil. This is what made the show so fun for kids—it was endlessly clever, constantly playing with its own in-jokes and recalling little patterns for its audience to put together. These “given” sitcom moments pave the way for actual depth when the show has the time to take you there in season finales or event episodes. 

Isabella says "whatcha doin?" menacingly as she stands over a tied-up Phineas, Phineas, Ferb and Ferb.

In Across the 2nd Dimension, all of these plotlines collide. Phineas and Ferb accidentally crash into Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s tower and help him build an “Other-Dimensionator.” Perry is unable to stop them because he can’t reveal his secret identity to the boys, or he’ll be relocated to another host family and never get to see Phineas and Ferb again. Candace wants to be more mature and attempts to bust the boys herself after her mom puts her in charge for the day. All of these characters get sucked into a parallel dimension by Doof’s machine—an alternate world similar to their own, only where Doof has succeeded in taking over the Tri-State Area and is now their supreme (fascist?) leader. Eventually Perry does reveal his secret identity while protecting the boys; the good guys team up with their 2nd-Dimension selves in order to save summer and everyone agrees to get their minds wiped by OWCA at the end in order to keep Perry as part of the family (and reset canon to the status quo for season 4).

Before we even get started on character and thematic analysis, it’s worth noting the basic stuff: the movie absolutely rocks. Phineas and Ferb is fondly remembered for its humor and music more than anything, and Across the 2nd Dimension delivers on both fronts. Each song is a banger (“Summer, Where Do We Begin?” is a particular favorite and should come back as the ultimate summer jam in perpetuity); the movie is endlessly quotable and extremely funny for both kids and adults without being crass. And, look, it’s not Shakespeare, okay? But sometimes an evil scientist with an eye patch trying to brainwash a nine-year-old with a sock puppet just gets you right in your funny bone.

The film examines the given circumstances of P&F’s continually resetting sitcom plot. It doesn’t just rely on cheap gags or an extended series of mini-stories to fill time—it’s its own beast altogether, perfectly in-theme with the show while simultaneously deconstructing it. Every repetitive behavior pattern becomes, itself, the plot. 

Everything’s Better With Perry

As a simple, delightful song for Phineas and Ferb to start their day, the opening number “Everything’s Better With Perry” actually establishes the film’s theme and central conflict right out of the gate. The show rarely gives us small moments of domesticity within the Flynn-Fletcher household, so we immediately get a distinct tone to separate us from a typical episode. Phineas and Ferb wake up in the morning with Perry by their side and we get a sense of just how integral he is to their lives as the song progresses. We see through montage that the things that are truly important to Phineas and Ferb aren’t their spectacular hijinks, but the small things—the daily, mundane acts of love that Perry seamlessly fits into: “Breathing in and out—it’s better! Sitting in a chair—it’s better! … Every day is such a dream when started with a monotreme.” Though both the Flynn-Fletcher boys and Perry have their own thrilling adventures and independent lives, it’s the familial time they share that’s most important to them at the end of the day.

Even with all the crazy things they do, EVERYTHING is better with Perry.

Ferb, Phineas, and Perry lie on the ground piled on top of each other.

It’s something we know instinctively because of the number of Phineas and Ferb episodes that have examined the family’s relationship with their beloved platypus: we know from “Oh, There You Are Perry”, a Season 2 episode in which Perry is transferred to another host family, that the boys care about their pet platypus more than almost anything, more than their adventures, and that he feels the same way. It’s because of Perry’s love for the boys that he feels he cannot risk losing them. It blinds him to the fact that they *would* care about him even if his true identity was revealed. This dynamic present in every episode of the show is the catalyst for the main character conflict of Across the 2nd Dimension—Perry lied about his identity to Phineas and Ferb, and Phineas feels betrayed.

The emotional meat of the film is Phineas’s reaction to discovering Perry is a secret agent. It comes after the 2nd-Dimension-Doof orders his version of Perry (a horrifying cyborg creature monikered “Perry the Platyborg”) to attack the boys, and the real Perry springs to action to defend them. This is after – as Phineas will later note – the boys have already helped Doof create a portal into another dimension, after they’ve been introduced to a fascist dictator, and after the Platyborg attacked Perry himself. None of those things were worth losing his family over, but Perry will always protect the boys before anything else, even if it means finally losing them.

(We’re just going to sit here and acknowledge for a moment that we’re talking about an animated anthropomorphic turquoise platypus like he’s got the emotional depth of a freaking Tennessee Williams character, but he does to me.)

We know Phineas and Ferb complete some extravagant project every day, and every day they ask “where’s Perry?” when the platypus inevitably disappears. In the show, it functions as a scene transition and a running joke. In the film, it’s the catalyst for the plot. We learn that Phineas and Ferb miss Perry every day when he goes off to work, and wish he could be present for their adventures (“he’s just a platypus; they don’t do much”). The fact that he understood what they were doing every day and—from their point of view—chose not to involve himself is a massive betrayal for Phineas when he discovers Perry is equally sentient as he is. What the boys don’t know is that Perry DOES prioritize them over his job even in the beginning; he lets Doof open the portal to the other dimension rather than reveal his secret identity and risk being taken away from them.

Perry stands in front of Phineas and Ferb, punching the Platyborg to protect the boys. Phineas and Ferb look at Perry, horrified.

The fact that Perry is, well, a platypus who by definition cannot speak human language is also a brilliant contributing factor to this theme. Phineas and Ferb can’t get from him the explanation they need until it’s too late—he literally can’t tell them. As silly as it sounds, it’s a sweet metaphor for fear blocking communication.

The very backdrop of summer that is a thematic set piece for the entire show becomes a metaphor for freedom, something our Phineas & Ferb have to introduce to their Doof-world counterparts. In Doof’s world, summer has been outlawed and alt-Phineas-and-Ferb live a drab gray life, in which the color has literally been sucked out of their animation. More than that, their Perry is now Doof’s Platyborg. The lack of summer is congruous with their gray Perry-less lives. The alt-dimension boys get their skin color back at the end of the movie, when they’ve embraced summer and joined the Resistance—and gotten Perry back.

At the climax of the film as the gang returns to their home dimension and prepares to fight Alt-Doof’s army of robots to keep him from having over their Danville, Phineas and Ferb have forgiven Perry vis a vis their adventures throughout the movie and ask Perry’s boss, Major Monogram, if they can stay to fight. Monogram insists the boys go home, and Perry gives Phineas his locket before running into battle. The boys get back to their house and use the locket as a homing beacon to find the entrance to Perry’s lair, where they discover he’s set up a secret message for them: in event of an emergency, they’re to re-create their inventions from the whole summer to help Perry save Danville. What results is an epic love letter to the fans as Phineas, Ferb, Perry, Isabella, Candace, and the rest of the crew fight robots throughout Danville with machines from past Phineas and Ferb episodes.

This ending is fun, nostalgic and proves that Perry did love the boys the whole time. He always trusted them as his backup to save Danville, and would sacrifice his ability to be in their family any day just to know they’re loved and safe. The boys do the same for him in the end; they agree to have their minds wiped in order to allow Perry to stay at home with them. They choose to keep him in the family over knowing who he really is and remembering their greatest adventure ever.

Perry is their greatest adventure—fighting robots can’t compare. 

You Guys are Going Down, Down, Down!

Candace’s arc since the beginning of the show has always revolved around her want for adulthood. In the pilot, the kids’ mom Linda puts Candace in charge, thus making Phineas and Ferb’s “misdeeds” her responsibility. In Across the 2nd Dimension, Candace fears she’s growing up too slowly as her boyfriend, Jeremy, has begun to tour colleges. In response, she adopts her newfound grown-up powers and realizes she can just bust the boys herself. Candace makes an appeal to the “mysterious force” that always removes Phineas and Ferb’s inventions before their mom can get home, and in “response,” she is coincidentally pulled into the 2nd Dimension. 

What’s so fun about this moment is that it technically doesn’t disprove the idea of a “mysterious force” that prevents Linda from catching on—while we, the audience, understand each instance as a coincidence, the coincidences do align with the approach of an adult with busting-power. When Candace first stomps out to stop the boys from playing platypus-catapult-badminton (don’t ask) at the beginning of the film, the catapults are bonked out of the backyard before she can arrive. The force technically recognizes her as an adult.

Candace (left, dressed in pink) and alt-Candace (right, dressed in black) discuss their differences of opinion regarding growing up as they ride on a mine train.

This dichotomy between Candace’s teenage-hood and desire to be an adult is exposed when she meets her alt-self, the strong, black-clad leader of the anti-Doof Resistance. This Candace had to grow up too fast—she fights every day, protecting her little brothers from the dangers of the world. She doesn’t even have time to pursue the affections of her world’s Jeremy. 

The Candaces learn from each other by the end of the movie: alt-Candace decides to give Resisting a rest and goes out with alt-Jeremy, and our Candace realizes she doesn’t have to grow up so soon. 

There’s a very vague theme here about the “mysterious force” being a metaphor for childhood imagination. While I like to think that everything that happens on Phineas and Ferb is literal because it makes for a much more fun show, there’s something to the idea that all these inventions exist in the minds and hearts of the kids who work on them every day. Candace is a part of that—perhaps the inventions “disappear” when Linda gets home because she doesn’t have the same imagination as her children, and thus when Candace gives up her girlhood, the inventions disappear for her as well. 

In the final battle, Candace realizes her role to play in their everyday pattern and realizes that the robots will have to dissipate if Linda comes outside to see what the boys are doing, just like the inventions always do. We get another lovely moment of congruence when Candace manages to pull Linda out of a robot-infested movie theater (“Wow! This 3D is amazing!”) just as alt-Doof self-destructs his own robots (we’ll get there). The “mysterious force” strikes again, and Candace gets to save the world just by being herself.

BACKSTORY!

Speaking of self-destruct buttons…

Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz is a beloved character from my generation’s childhood, and not just because Dan Povenmire is on TikTok now and likes to react to things in Doof’s voice. 

Each Doof scheme begins with a tragic backstory referencing his traumatic childhood “back in Gimmelshtump” (in the fictional country of Drusselstein), in which he was (in no particular order): abandoned by his parents at his own birth, raised by ocelots, forced to work as a lawn gnome, mocked by his father for being unable to jump off a high dive, etc. The backstory in question will relate vaguely to his evil scheme for the day, but most schemes wind up living in the world of “petty” rather than strictly evil.

Alt-Doof, in contrast, has no tragic backstory. He obtained his true evil “borne through pain and loss” … by losing his toy choo-choo train. Our Doof is incredulous, naturally, that his counterpart barely suffered in life and managed to become more successful, but this joke actually has quite a lot of thematic merit. 

Dr. Doofenshmirtz (left, in a white lab coat) laughs with alt-Doof (right, in black with an eye patch).

We’ve always known Doof isn’t actually a bad man; he sees evil as bureaucracy, a job, a hobby, something he loves, but doesn’t mean to cause genuine hurt or anguish most of the time. He has suffered a lot in his life but it doesn’t actually amount to him causing others to suffer in return.  When he realizes he’s hurt Perry, he often gives in; we see this most commonly with his daughter Vanessa, who he is consistently a good father to (or is trying to be). Doof is often motivated by a desire to help Vanessa, or a need to apologize for how his schemes have gotten in the way of her life. By the end of the show, Doof has been conscripted to work as a science teacher at the local high school in lieu of prison time (“Doof 101”), and has retired to a sionlife of teaching and going bowling with Perry on Thursday nights as shown in “Act Your Age.” 

One could even say his tendency to destroy his own inators with self-destruct buttons is a metaphor for not wanting to cause real harm—it’s only after alt-Doof is reunited with his choo-choo train at the end of Across the 2nd Dimension and his evilness is diminished that he reveals his robots had self-destruct buttons all along, and he promptly disposes with them all to save the day.

All that to say, trauma looks different to everyone, and it doesn’t make you evil. 

There’s Only One Perry

This movie is excellent because it’s a love letter to the kids who watch it. It’s inventive, smart, and rewarding. It trusts that children want to see something good, not just something easy. That was kind of the whole point of Phineas and Ferb to begin with: that kids are smart, and they can do imaginative and difficult things, as long as they’re supported and loved along the way. You make the most of your own summer.

Perry stands, teary-eyed surrounded by friends.

While rewatching Across the 2nd Dimension to take notes for this article, my best friend caught a moment in the first scene where Ferb has the book The Odyssey by his bedside. She remarked to me that “Evil Doof is like the suitors who go to seduce Penelope, and then Odysseus (Phineas) has to slaughter the suitors who aren’t supposed to be there, like the evil robots that aren’t supposed to be in Danville!”

I’m 99.9% sure that’s all a coincidence and the joke is just that a nine-year-old boy is reading The Odyssey.

But then again, I just wrote a 3000-word essay about a children’s cartoon, so … uh … *insert Perry noise here*

Written by Natalie Parks

Natalie Parks is a NYC-based actor and writer. They were a founding board member of their university's Theatre for Social Change organization (TR4CE), working to create ethically conscious and socially aware art. Loves dogs, Shakespeare, and Evelyn Baker Lang's shoes.

5 Comments

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  1. Hi Natalie,

    We always thought that Evil Doof was more like Virgil guiding Dante through the underworld, but the Odysseus analogy has some merit as well. 🙂

    Thanks for this lovely tribute to the show!

    Best,
    Jim

  2. Like Swampy, this part, among others, made me “sweat through the eyes” too.
    “This movie is excellent because it’s a love letter to the kids who watch it. It’s inventive, smart, and rewarding. It trusts that children want to see something good, not just something easy. That was kind of the whole point of Phineas and Ferb to begin with: that kids are smart, and they can do imaginative and difficult things, as long as they’re supported and loved along the way. You make the most of your own summer.”
    Thank you Natalie Parks.

  3. Wow!

    Thank you Natalie Parks for these kind words… Actually made me sweat through my eyes a little bit.

    Swampy

    • Oh my goodness, I’m so honored that you took the time to read this! P & F has been a source of bonding for me and my best friend since we met at age 8… over a decade later it’s still what we come back to for a sense of comfort and goofs.
      Thank you for all your hard work on this show, it’s going to be loved for king time.

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