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Retro review: 'Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure' remains most excellent

With a third “Bill & Ted” movie hitting select theaters and video-on-demand platforms on Sept. 1, it’s worthwhile to ride the circuits of time back to where it all started.

Courtesy of Orion Pictures

Maybe a refresher is needed, or perhaps you wonder what the United States was like post-Ronald Reagan and hair metal, but before the Gulf War and the rise of alternative rock came along in the early ’90s? You’ll have to step into a phone booth that doubles as a time machine, close the door and ride the circuits of time to watch Stephen Herek’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” to find out. Don’t worry, it’s a most excellent 90-minute ride.

Released theatrically on Feb. 17, 1989 by Orion Pictures, “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” is sharper and more spirited today than one might expect. Starring Keanu Reeves as Ted Theodore Logan and Alex Winter as Bill S. Preston, Esq., the pair are fun-loving high school slackers who live in San Dimas, California, in 1988. The best friends don’t have a mean bone in them and they just want to rock out as the Wyld Stallyns despite their inability to play decent music (an issue which will be addressed in the 1991 sequel “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey”). The duo can’t continue performing together, however, if they fail their history class, as Ted’s dad, who is a police captain, threatens his son with transferring him to military school in Alaska if he doesn’t get a passing grade. How do two failing geeks with barely an idea between them pass a class with less than one day to prepare a presentation which requires them to get an A-plus grade which in turn sets the Wyld Stallyns up for continuation, leading to them creating world peace through their music which ultimately saves the world? That’s where Rufus, played by George Carlin, steps in with the time-travelling phone booth.

After a quick trip with Rufus to 1805 to visit Napoleon Bonaparte, Bill and Ted return to 1988 San Dimas with Napoleon and regroup. They continue on without Rufus, riding the circuits of time to different spots in order to kidnap additional historical figures of prominence to help with their history presentation. Along the way, they pick up Billy the Kid, Socrates, or So-crates as Bill and Ted call him, and they also grab Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, and more. They even meet and fall in love with a couple of Medieval babes who are princesses. Not all the historical characters picked up are particularly fleshed out, but the script from Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon is efficient and keeps the phone booth hurling through time at a rapid enough pace so that boredom or wondering what’s been left out isn’t likely to enter one’s mind.

Courtesy of Orion Pictures

Much of what’s best in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” is unique in that it shouldn’t work. For instance, a principle rule for fiction, regardless of the medium the story is told in, is the necessity for character arcs to be developed in order for audiences to care for or invest in a character. An example of this comes from another time-travelling ’80s movie: “Back to the Future." In that film, Marty McFly goes from his hometown in 1985 back 30 years via a time-travelling DeLorean. In 1955, Marty interrupts a key event which threatens his family’s future and Marty spends the rest of the film overcoming a series of obstacles to save his existence. There’s a full arc for Marty and all the McFlys. Bill and Ted, meanwhile, don’t really work that way.

At the beginning of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” Bill and Ted are sweet boneheads who don’t care about much except music. They ignore authority and they don’t really challenge it either. The friends don’t even seem interested in approval from their parents, teachers or peers. None of these traits really change by the end of the movie, and further, they still can’t play their instruments with any skill. Their objective is simple: pass history class to later save the world. The movie is really that straightforward. Normally, that lack of character development would be enough to cripple a film but Reeves and Winter are just so quirky and charming as actors that it frankly doesn’t matter. Bill and Ted are just good enough to not screw up their future — with some assistance from Rufus.

Much like “Back to the Future” or any of the angst-filled John Hughes teen movies of the 1980s, Bill and Ted’s inaugural trip through the circuits of time leaves a colossal footprint on pop culture. The difference for Bill and Ted is they capture a much smaller moment in time, and they put it on ice, allowing watchers to thaw out their late ’80s fun-loving experience whenever they like without it feeling particularly dated or irrelevant. “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” is similar to Carl Reiner’s “Summer School” from 1987 in that way, but on a grander scale, as Bill and Ted went on to have a sequel, a cartoon series, a brief live-action show, comics, video games, and now a third movie that's scheduled for limited release and video-on-demand viewing starting Sept. 1.

Much of what's lacking from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” is explored in its sequel, which involves the duo falling to Hell and having to make a pact with the Grim Reaper to return to Earth and fulfill their musical destiny. Thankfully, their bogus journey also includes them upping their musical abilities. There’s not much to learn from Bill and Ted but what they offer is vital: Don’t take yourself too seriously, be authentic to yourself and be excellent to each other. The last one in particular isn’t asking for too much, right?


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