Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has a supremely silly story that some may deem “dated,” but its classic charms are still just as entertaining as ever.
Long before he was waging a war against the machines in the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy or dispatching dog killers in the John Wick flicks, the recently revered Keanu Reeves was palling around the past with Alex Winter (The Lost Boys, Freaked) in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in one of his first major movie roles. Somehow, what started as a simple-minded skit schemed up by screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon soon flourished into a feature-length film that would serve as the foundation for a fruitful and favored franchise, with fans around the world falling for the shenanigans of the “Wyld Stallyns” and actively announcing their adoration of these two tricksters’ antics over the past 30 years.
Thanks to these ardent admirers, the comical cult classic has remained relevant since its release, and it seems as if new supporters surface almost every day. Therefore, in honor of Studiocanal’s re-release of the first film on August 10th and the arrival of the anticipated Bill & Ted Face the Music on August 28th, this edition of “Flashback Films” is devoted to diving into the background of the Bill & Ted tales and analyzing the amazingly ageless appeal of their “excellent” adventures.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is centered around the chaos caused by our loony leads, Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Reeves) on their tumultuous trek throughout time. The story starts with these two torpid teens focused first and foremost on building up their band – the aforementioned “Wyld Stallyns” – instead of seeking to succeed in their studies, which puts them in a precarious position when their history professor proclaims that they will fail their classes and potentially flunk out of school entirely unless they can properly present a near-perfect history paper by the next day. If that wasn’t bad enough, Ted’s police captain father adds supplementary stress by stating that he will ship Ted off to a military academy in Alaska, should the boys be unsuccessful.
After being appropriately admonished, these slow-witted slackers struggle to perfect their project until they are suddenly sought out by a shifty stranger named Rufus (played by late comedic legend George Carlin), who comes from the year 2688, where the world’s population prospers thanks to the tunes and teachings of the “Two Great Ones,” Preston and Logan. Realizing that society will suffer if Bill and Ted can’t conquer this challenge, Rufus bestows a time-traveling phone booth on the brainless boys, which allows them to hop throughout history and round up famous figures of the past – such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Socrates, and Abraham Lincoln, among others – in order to incorporate these icons into a prosperous presentation and overcome the odds stacked against them.
For such a seemingly silly story with a plethora of peculiar plot points, one would think that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure might waver beneath the weight of its “wacky” whimsicality. And, indeed, the adventure at hand can feel overly absurdist and anarchic, especially when there often appears to be little rhyme or reason applied to the film’s rules of time-travel. However, screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon still somehow managed to overcome these obstacles by simply submitting to this senselessness and never taking anything too seriously.
These eccentric exploits can also be explained by acknowledging that, in its earliest inception, Bill & Ted actually originated as an improv routine performed by Matheson and Solomon in college. In fact, before Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure ever came to fruition as a film, the two started shaping a screenplay composed of all sorts of skits that they had performed as a part of their time in this troupe. Yet, when asking for the advice of acclaimed sci-fi author Richard Matheson, Chris’s father, they were told to solely spotlight the adventures of these airheaded adolescents, as their bewitching bond happened to be both humorous and heartfelt – a favorable formula that fans would flock to.
From there, Matheson and Solomon re-structured their script to prioritize Bill and Ted as protagonists, but the storyline retained its “looseness” so that the film overall had a “freeing” feeling devoid of any “demanding” design. Though director Stephen Herek (101 Dalmatians, The Mighty Ducks) labeled the film as “laugh-out-loud” funny, he did note that the movie’s manic mayhem might alienate some audiences, and, as such, the script proved hard to sell to studios. Luckily, Orion Pictures was soon dedicated to distributing this offbeat odyssey, and even though some executives remained perplexed by the picture’s personality, it proved to be a huge hit, earning $40.4 million domestically on a budget of $10 million. In a way, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’s innovative idiosyncrasy actually strengthened its success instead of constricting its charm, allowing it to stand apart from the comedies it competed with at the box office as a singular and strange saga that felt fresh and fascinating instead of stereotypical and stale.
Aside from Bill & Ted’s broadly appealing aimlessness, the film also benefitted from having a sense of humor that brilliantly balanced stupidity with sincerity. Sure, Bill and Ted were deliriously dimwitted, but the characters were never coarse or callous, and Matheson and Solomon’s snappy script varied their dopey dialogue enough to keep audiences engaged rather than annoyed. Furthermore, Bill and Ted’s fond friendship served as the face of the film, as Matheson and Solomon didn’t shy away from spotlighting the sentiment the two shared for one another. In doing so, the screenwriters made it even easier for the audience to love their leads, as, in spite of their shallowness, they had plenty of other redeemable and relatable qualities. It helps that Reeves and Winter allegedly connected quickly behind the scenes as well while auditioning for the film (which subsequently helped them secure their starring roles), since that compelling chemistry translates terrifically to the screen and forms the foundation of the entire fable.
Finally, as opposed to a variety of “of-the-moment” comedies from the 80s, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has attracted attention from audiences across a span of 30 years in part due to a plot that prioritized historical humor over pop-culture potshots, allowing its allure to remain untarnished by time. While the spoof-esque elements of the story can seem overly “screwy” at times, Matheson and Solomon inject just enough intellect into Bill and Ted’s interactions with personalities from the past to surprise us with some savvily smart satire that toys with our impressions of these icons. As a result, jokes about Joan of Arc, banter with Billy the Kid, and silly stunts with Sigmund Freud are not only quite “quippy” but also tremendously timeless, since these remarks will remain relevant and not “age out” of their amusement as the years go by. Matheson and Solomon have indeed said they wanted to fashion a farce that could charm for years to come, and they have done just that with an enduring epic will never lose its “edge”.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure may not be the most cultured or complex comedy, but in terms of sheer entertainment value, this endearing and exciting escapade can’t be beat. Even in spite of its apparent inception as an improvisational sketch, the scattershot and silly story has maintained its magnetism over moviegoers for 30 years thanks to its commitment to creating characters who were both crazy and charming and its dedication to delivering a wealth of wackily witty wisecracks that manage to be both brainless and brilliant, simultaneously. At first glance, it may seem strange that such a foolish film served as the start to such a successful series, but under further examination, it’s evident that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was engineered to be enjoyed until the end of time.
StudioCanal’s 4K restoration for cinemas and home entertainment of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was released on August 10, 2020. Read our review of Bill & Ted Face the Music.