Everything Old Is New Again: Bill & Ted
Revisiting the franchise as the latest installment hits theaters and VOD.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
This film is most triumphant. And honestly, it has no right to be. This movie should, on paper, be tossed into the pile of never-ending 80’s sci-fi teen comedies — a subgenre of the excessive and endless stream of films brought to us by John Hughes and the like.
Really think about this for a second:
Two high schools clowns spend their time screeching electric guitars they can’t play and discuss how to attract Eddie Van Halen to their band, Wyld Stallions, so they won’t stink so much. Meanwhile, they should be at school, yes — Ted actually forgets school exists in the opening scene. Their history teacher is tired of their shenanigans (No Ted, Joan of Arc is not Noah’s wife) and informs them that if they want to pass his class and ultimately high school, they must get an A+ on their history final.
Seems simple enough, right? Typical 80s teen craziness.
Here’s where it goes off the rails:
Turns out, Bill and Ted are the messiah figures who one day lead the world to intergalactic peace. If they don’t pass their history final, they don’t go on to write the excellent song that unites the universe. So Rufus, played by comedy legend George Carlin, must go back in time to San Dimas, CA circa 1988 in his phone booth time machine to convince Bill and Ted to go back in time to round up historical figures so they can all speak in their oral presentation tomorrow. A race against the clock film, Bill and Ted must round up Socrates, Lincoln, Mozart, and the like before they flunk out of school.
The first shocking thing is here is that this movie even made it to the big screen. Its long list of pre-/production speed bumps includes:
The original draft of the script had them picking up Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, then taking him back to San Dimas.
The original cut of the film was almost 2 and a half hours long.
After making the film, the original distributor went bankrupt, putting the movie on a shelf for over a year.
And despite all these hiccups, the movie is most wonderful! Non-stop funny thanks to the charming and adorable duo, the movie really sinks or swims based on the excellent and endearing performances of Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves. On the collaboration creating their characters, Winter had this to say in The Hollywood Reporter:
“Keanu and I [agreed], they have to be human beings that we can play. It can’t just be caricatures and they can’t have a kind of a comedic aloofness to them. They have to genuinely care about the things that are happening to them. The way that Keanu and I played the characters was sort of a mix of hyper-real and totally sincere.”
That sincerity makes Bill and Ted lovable. They’re just two dudes who are told they have to save the world. An unlikely duo, they pull it off thanks to their ability to never give up. They’re also much more clever than they’re given credit for, bending the rules of time travel to make their mission a success.
Being an 80s teen flick, it did, however, age poorly in a few moments. Letterboxd user Sally Jane Black wrote “A most bogus use of a homophobic slur in a tragically “no homo” context and an equally bogus dose of sexism throughout drags down this otherwise most triumphantly excellent dumb comedy-meets-B-grade history jokes messianic scifi flick.”
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures (1990)
Quick to capitalize on the $40 million success of the film, Hanna-Barbera threw together a Saturday morning cartoon version of the two lovable teens. In unusual style, Winter, Reeves, and Carlin all lended their voices to the first season and the show feels like a natural continuation of the franchise thanks to this. And I wouldn’t be surprised if their adventures with Julius Caesar, The Wright Brothers, and Ben Franklin didn’t teach kids some history along the way.
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
If you thought the insanity of the first flick was too much for you, buckle up for the live-action sequel:
Bill and Ted enter into a Battle of the Bands.
No, of course not.
David Thiel of IMDB wrote the following plot synopsis:
The world of our distant future is a veritable utopia, thanks to the lyrics of two simple-minded 20th Century rock and rollers, Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan. However, a would-be conquerer threatens to throw history off-track by sending “most non-non-heinous” evil robot Bill and Teds back to kill their good counterparts. Finding themselves dead, the boys must outwit the Grim Reaper and traverse Heaven and Hell to return to the land of the living, rescue their “babes” and have a “most triumphant” concert at the all-important Battle of the Bands.
A totally insane, nightmare-esque fever dream, ripped from 1957’s The Seventh Seal? Of course! The exact thing we would expect to follow up a silly teen flick and kids’ cartoon. Why not?
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures (1992)
This one is totally bogus. For real. Cast with the two guys who took over the cartoon voices in season two, they fall flat searching for what made Bill and Ted so lovable. In the films, despite the fact that they are slackers, they’re not stupid. Their vocabulary is surprisingly extensive, they’re passionate about what they love, and they never ever give up when the going gets tough. In this iteration, however, they’re just dumb. It’s almost like a bad parody.
Critics and audiences agreed and the show only lasted seven episodes.
Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020)
This film is exactly what we needed in 2020. What a strange year it has been and Bill and Ted are here to remind us that it will all be okay in the end.
In development for over a decade, the final film of the trilogy hit one final bump (that being the COVID-19 pandemic) and was released in theaters and video on demand simultaneously this past weekend.
It’s been over three decades and the dynamic duo still haven’t written the song that unites the world. With just over an hour to perfect the song they’ve been trying to write for so long, they enlist the help of their daughters, their 15th century British princess wives, and music pioneers throughout history to write the totally awesome tune.
The movie is exactly what you want from a long awaited follow up, over 30 years behind its original film: it keeps things consistent, you get some nice callbacks to the first two films, and it handles the passage of time well. Bill and Ted can’t exactly be the same high school blow-offs they were before — but their kids can be! Little Bill and Little Ted grow up to be Billie and Thea, played with wonderful homage by Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine, (Weaving is strong, but Lundy-Paine really steals the show. They are hilarious throughout.)
“The most successful quality of the film is how close it keeps in spirit and haphazard style to the first two installments, and how it feels proudly unstuck in time.” Alison Willmore, Vulture
We’ve been hearing about this installment for so long now and it doesn’t disappoint. Perfectly palatable in a time where we could all use a good laugh and some comforting nostalgia, the movie delivers on all fronts.