What Phineas and Ferb Taught Me About Character, Motivation and Plot

I used to watch artsy French films. Preferably the kind heavy with metaphors that left me in tears and pondering the meaning of life. Also, preferably starring Juliette Binoche.

For example, Trois Couleurs: Blue.

Now the mother of young kids, I’ve given up literary devices for cutesy animals and catchy theme songs.

Or have I…

The other day, I sat down with my kids to watch an episode of our current favorite slap-happy toon, Phineas and Ferb. It was the episode where they take a vacation to Hawaii. You know, the one modeled after that classic Brady Bunch episode with the tiki necklace and the surfing competition.

Right. So, I’m sitting with my kids, watching the part where Phineas and Ferb have dumped the human-sized sea monkeys in the hotel swimming pool. Because the show follows roughly the same formula each episode, next, their older sister Candace needs to discover the sea monkeys and try to get Phineas and Ferb caught.

But at the beginning of the show, Candace stated her goal for her vacation: relaxation and taking a break from busting her brothers.

I distinctly recall thinking, How will the writers get this one to play out?

No brother busting, no plot, right? I watched intently, intrigued.

After the music sequence (marker 4:40 in the movie above), Candace reaffirms her intention of relaxing. At marker 5:30, she hears the instructor’s announcement for a pool-side yoga class, slathers on an extra dose of “serenity” (i.e., sunscreen) and attempts a backbend.

Slippery with sunscreen, she falters, scrambles and splashes into the pool, where — surprise! — she discovers the calypso-dancing sea monkeys.

Cue brother busting and the unraveling of the remaining plot.

In that moment, a very small lightbulb blinked on over my head. Had there been a cartoon thought bubble as well, it might have read, “Huh. Looky there. Character and motivation advance the plot.”

Simplistic? Sure. But this cartoon made plain something I’d read in countless writing books.

Maybe swapping subtitles for slap-happy isn’t such a waste after all.

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