Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon
Directed by Stephen Herek
I vividly remember renting Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure when I was about 8 or 9. My mom was doing something that night related to the church, and so we got to rent a movie while staying home with our dad. I had seen the television commercials for Bill and Ted, but living in a family of four kids with only one working parent, we didn’t go out to the movie theater much. Video rental was how I saw most films, but they had to be PG-rated or lower, with some exceptions made for PG-13. I can remember loving this movie, not knowing who some of these historical figures were at the time, but enjoying the goofball duo that led the picture.
Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, respectively) are a couple of high school students devoted to making their band Wyld Stallyns the next big thing. However, a history class presentation stands in their way with the threat of military school looming over Ted’s head. Their luck changes when they are visited by Rufus (George Carlin), a man from the 27th century where the Wyld Stallyns are revered as figures that brought about world peace. He provides Bill & Ted with a time machine in the form of a phone booth, which allows them to travel through history and gather a host of famous faces to aid them in their presentation. Through a series of mishaps, they recruit people like Billy the Kid, Socrates, and more in a very light-hearted and silly comedy.
This film is by no means a cinematic masterpiece. It is a reasonably cleverly written and funny picture of two well-meaning idiots. It is hard to dislike Bill and Ted as they are so welcoming and kind-hearted in every interaction. These characters possess literally no malice towards others. They are mostly cartoon versions of a California surfer dude mixed with metalheads. I do have to note the annoying culturally prevalent homophobia in the script. The boys call each other “f–s” at one point after a death scare, which leads to a hug. That doesn’t sit well then and most certainly not now. Thankfully, that is not something that comes up anywhere else in the picture.
There are a lot of gags centered around the historical figures picked up by Bill & Ted. Joan of Arc becomes obsessed with an aerobics class at the mall and aggressively takes over. Genghis Khan decimates a sporting goods store with aluminum bats. Sigmund Freud is carrying around a corn dog while approaching a couple of women in the food court. You can tell the writers were having fun with these characters, even having Napoleon become fixated on the local water park Waterloop. Additionally, there are some puns sprinkled about, like when Ted is asked who Joan of Arc was, he responds, “Noah’s wife?” They are not the brightest jokes, but they are not reliant on shallow slapstick for every laugh.
The film really shines when it becomes playful with time travel as a way for the screenwriters to get around difficult situations. Bill and Ted meet themselves from later in the film, which foreshadows future events. Then, they are stuck in the police station trying to bust historical figures from jail. Bill and Ted speak aloud what they will go back to do later to help them open the cells. We then see all these happen, it implies that when the film is over, they will set all this up. That sort of playfulness feels inspired by Back to the Future. I would never say the Bill & Ted movies are ever as smart as those films, but they do share some DNA and the idea that time travel is an inherently silly trope that can be a lot of fun.
I wouldn’t expect modern young audiences to enjoy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the same way people of my generation did as kids. It is very much a movie made for young people in the late 1980s, but I suspect some viewers will still connect with the more universal elements. In my review of Bogus Journey, I’ll talk more about expectations for the third film, but I hope that the carefree, innocent nature of this movie will be commented on in the third entry.