In 1969, when “Sesame Street” premiered, it invented a thing called children’s “educational” television, and few would deny that it fulfilled that mission — to teach kids and delight them at the same moment. The legacy of “Sesame Street” is vast, to the point that dozens of children’s shows that don’t call themselves educational, or even think of themselves that way, now subscribe to the same mission. In our era, some of the best kids’ TV has been fast and furious, diabolically witty and smart — the educational equivalent of a roller-coaster ride. I’m thinking of shows like “Team Umizoomi,” “The Loud House,” “Apple & Onion,” and “Phineas and Ferb,” which ended its four-season run on the Disney Channel in 2015. So it’s no surprise that “Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe” is one of the sharpest kids’ movies in a while.
Like the show it’s now effectively reviving, the movie, which premieres today on Disney Plus, is a quick-spirited, low-tech funky, pleasingly insane animated musical entertainment that rarely lets you forget you’re watching a cartoon. The series’ creators, Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, both worked on “The Simpsons,” and you could always hear echoes of that show’s postmodern winkiness in “Phineas and Ferb” — though, of course, that’s a tradition that also stretches back to “Rocky & Bullwinkle” and “What’s Opera, Doc?” The film opens with the acerbic, red-haired Candace (voiced by Ashley Tisdale), accompanied by backup singers who look like American versions of Herman’s Hermits, riding her bike and singing “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” — a paean to optimism that’s also a parody of optimism, full of catchy rolling wordplay (“I’ll admit it’s just a little uncharacteristic,/ Cause I know that I’ve been known to be antagonistic…”).
On the show, it was Ashley’s fate to be disgruntled, during summer vacation, by the zany, outsize inventions masterminded by her two younger brothers, Phineas and Ferb, a sneaky pair of psychic-twin deadbeats, like Ernie and Bert, Apple and Onion, or the Troublemakers on “Team Umizoomi.” Phineas, who has a head shaped like a triangle, with goggle eyes that sit on it like two hard-boiled eggs (and red eyebrows that dance above it in the air), is a suburban Poindexter who’s voiced (by Vincent Martella) with a just-this-side-of-goofy nasal earnestness that’s infectiously quick and dim and eager at the same time. Ferb (voiced by David Errigo Jr.) speaks less often, but when he does it’s in a drolly disjunctive British accent à la James Cordon.
The movie, which is very much a companion piece to 2011’s “Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension,” turns out to be a high-kitsch alien-abduction adventure, as Candace and her pal, Vanessa (Olivia Olson), are brought aboard a mysterious spaceship and taken to the beautiful psychedelic mushroom planet of Feebla-Oot. Phineas and Ferb and their team of comrades must then travel through a space portal to rescue her.
The plot is just a pretext, a frame on which to hang the film’s parade of deadpan satirical absurdities. This is the sort of movie in which Dr. Doofenshmirtz (voiced by Dan Povenmire), a mad scientist who speaks in the vaguely sinister generic foreign accent that cartoon characters have been employing since Fearless Leader, says things like “See how I used vacuum as both a transitive verb and an abstract concept? That’s grammatical versatility!” The sort of movie that tosses out words like “per se” and “rage-singing” and “semantic” and “We don’t have an ion shield! We’re not fancy-schmancy!” Not to mention jokes about support groups, power ballads, Cubism, talk-show obsequiousness, plus a very funny song called “Adulting,” about how adults justify their judgment with no good reason.
There’s also a soundtrack out of a ’60s Bond thriller, and an extraterrestrial leader named Super Super Big Doctor (Ali Wong), who befriends Candace and declares her the “Chosen One,” parading her around as the most special being in the galaxy. But, tellingly, she also uses mind-controlling spores to brainwash the citizens of her planet; she’s a dictator, and the film’s giant-monster climax, in its way, feels epic. “Candace Against the Universe” has been made for “Phineas and Ferb” believers, and like such hipster kiddie brand extensions as “Teen Titans Go! To the Movies,” it’s not necessarily more fun than three good episodes of the show stacked together. But that’s fun enough.