When Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure hit the multiplexes back in 1989, it tapped into the zeitgeist in a big way. Over the next few years there were cartoons, video games, comic books, a live action show and even a cereal in addition to the obligatory movie sequel. Thus, it was surprising when its creators later revealed that film almost got dumped to video due to financial woes of DEG, its original production company, and was only saved by an eleventh-hour acquistion via another company. That story just enhances the appeal of the film, which endures because it has a “can’t miss’ quality that shines through in all its aspects.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a singular hybrid of slacker comedy and sci-fi, with good-natured underachievers Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) learning that they will flunk out of school if they don’t ace their history class’ final exam. All seems lost until Rufus (George Carlin) shows up at the local Circle K and presents them with a phone booth that allows them to travel anywhere in time. Soon, the slacker duo is romping their way through multiple historical settings as they round up historical figures like Napoleon (Terry Camilleri), Billy The Kid (Dan Shor) and Joan Of Arc (Jane Wiedlin) to help them put together the required historical presentation.
The resulting film avoids succumbing to dopeyness or a lazy presentation of its premise thanks to everyone involved bringing a sense of fun and inspiration to their tasks. The Chris Matheson/Ed Solomon script has a stealthy intelligence to it, dealing with the quandaries of time travel in a clever yet accessible way and making the leads a couple of charming, good-hearted guys that the audience can cheer on instead of idiots to be mocked. Director Stephen Herek provides a stylish framework for the laughs and gags, displaying kinetic flair when needed (the highlight: a hilarious montage where historical figures run amok in the San Dimas mall).
Like its heroes, the film is also genuinely kind: it conscientiously avoids mean-spiritedness and doesn’t pass judgment on any of its characters, not even those who oppose the heroes. Winter and Reeves anchor the film as the two heroes: they both show sly comic timing and a knack for slapstick but they also give real three-dimensional performances, treating the characters as real guys with dreams and fears instead of just vehicles for jokes. Ditto for the historical actors, with Shor playing a version of Billy The Kid that develops leadership and Camilleri showing Napoleon transforming from a domineering jerk to a guy who knows how to have fun with others.
In short, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure endures because it found a smart way to be silly. If you look at it as a film instead of just a source of laughs, you’ll also notice the savvy, careful construction behind the fun.