by Jon Jenkins
Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, the two “most excellent” founders of Wyld Stallyns and saviors of humanity, return to theaters this year for their third outing in this most bodacious franchise. Having already traveled through time, and the afterlife, Bill and Ted have always managed to entertain viewers throughout the decades and they’ve done it all with a smile and a song in their heart. Bill and Ted have been seen as sort of the “Cheech and Chong” for 90’s kids, “stoners” for a modern era, which is funny since they’ve never been seen taking drugs or ever advocating drug use. They’ve even managed to spawn an animated series, a live actions series, video games, comics and the long-awaited third instalment mentioned previously. It’s clear Bill and Ted have struck a chord with audiences since their 1989 debut, but what is it about these two San Dimas rockers that have made them such icons? Let's answer this by taking a look at “Bill and Ted: An Excellent Retrospective.”
In 1989, the world was introduced to Bill and Ted in their first outing, “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” The film followed the “most triumphant” task of Bill and Ted traveling through time, with the help of their phonebooth time machine from their future pal Rufus, in order to learn enough to pass their History final, allowing them to form their band “Wyld Stallyns” and thus save humanity. If you think that sounds like a stoner fever dream, you must be a parent, but if you think that’s the best premise for a movie in the history of film, then welcome, this retrospective is for you! This film idea was always a frankly “bonkers” premise, and sounds like none of this would ever work all together. Between “California/ surfer” culture, time travel, saving humanity, rock music and George Carlin, this shouldn’t work in theory. Thankfully it all mixed together in the most wonderful way, and we have one of the best “buddy” films in history.
"Between “California/ surfer” culture, time travel, saving humanity, rock music and George Carlin, this shouldn’t work in theory."
Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as Bill and Ted respectively are the heart and soul of this film and this whole franchise. Their friendship and comradery are some of the best and most believable in film, up with the likes of Mike Myers and Dana Carvey of “Wayne’s World.” When doing a “buddy” film (a film centered around two or more friends and their relationship) the obviously most crucial element is the chemistry between your main characters; if the actors can't believe they’re friends, neither will the audience. Reeves and Winter have some of the best chemistry and most believable admiration for one another that I've ever seen; they completely sell the idea that these two aren't actors, but rather good friends who just so happened to learn time travel and needed to save the day. It’s this bond and electrifying connection they share that makes their journey as Bill and Ted so entertaining and brings people back again and again to relive their most triumphant journeys.
"It’s this bond and electrifying connection they share that makes their journey as Bill and Ted so entertaining and brings people back again and again to relive their most triumphant journeys."
Another character who’s an integral part of this whole franchise is that of Rufus, played by the legendary George Carlin. George Carlin was an already well-established raunchy comedian, who’s attachment to the project certainly gave weight and caught the eyes of curious viewers. Rufus, a time traveler from the year 2688, comes back to help Bill and Ted pass their history final. Their passing allows them to create the band Wyld Stallyns, whose music will end all of humankind's issues, creating a world Utopia. Again, just wow what a bizarre concept but man if it isn’t entertaining. Rufus might be the coolest time traveler in the history of storytelling, and yes, I’m including “The Doctor” for all you Whosians out there.
Rufus has this sleek, futuristic leather-bound, badass look to him; makes you wonder if the Wachowskis stole his design for the “Matrix” franchise, maybe they also stole Keanu? That’s for another thread.
Carlin as Rufus brings this stoic but never too serious level to the franchise, filling it with the gravity and stakes the story needs to further the plot, but never ever bog it down in drama or less “excellent” feelings. He’s our guide into the wacky and hilarious universe of space and time, the one who leases us our time traveling phonebooth (not at all derivative of the “Doctor Who” Tardis), and who teaches us, and our heroes, the most important lesson; music bridges all people, languages and barriers. Rufus is funny, always calm, and the perfect guide for Bill and Ted, as well as the audience.
Now I’d be remiss to mention “Excellent Adventure” without talking about the fun lingo and characters we meet throughout history. Between “Bob” Genghis Khan, “So-crates,” Billy the Kid, Ms. Joan of Arc, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Sigmund Freud, Napoleon and even Abraham Lincoln, this cast is STACKED with the who's who of history. Each presenting a fun new piece of this chaotic puzzle of strangers in a strange land. Perhaps the most fun scene in the film is all these characters interacting at the San Dimas mall; getting mall court food, picking up “babes,” trying out aerobics and even shopping at sporting goods stores. Seeing how all these historical figures try to explore and immerse themselves in 1989 San Dimas is a hilarious and a magical element of the franchises ability to make the most outrageous premise seem simple at execution.
"The lingo in this film also might be the most universally recognizable in film history."
The lingo in this film also might be the most universally recognizable in film history. Much like “Wayne’s World,” “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” is almost most remembered for the very specific language the characters use, which in turn is a big component in solidifying their believability as real characters. From phrases such as “excellent,” “most triumphant.” “bogus,” “strange things are afoot at the ‘Circle K,’” and my personal favorite. “69 dudes!” Their lingo, while very surfer bro language, is instantly recognizable to Bill and Ted, and are very much products of their time and place. Language in any film in critical, not only for just understanding what's being said, but it also anchors us to a time and location; grounding us to a base understanding of when and where our story takes place. Bill and Ted are very clearly from 80s-90s So Cal, and their language needed to reflect that so that whenever you watch the film you can tell exactly where you are; It transports us to their world and makes it all the more believable.
“Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” kicked off what would become a moderate franchise, one that I don’t think anyone working on the original film could anticipate. With success, naturally talks of sequels and continuations come up, and that was no exception for Bill and Ted. Just two short years later, the cast returned for the second installment of this rocker bro saga, however the reception to it has been less than “excellent,” and rather... “bogus.”
In 1991, the long-awaited sequel in the Bill and Ted saga was released, “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.” The reception, at the time, from critics was that it was an improvement from the first. Many praised the darker tone and subject matter than the original, as well as the progression of character development to our two favorite San Dimas rockers. However, as time went on, fans and critics realized that perhaps this new turn in the franchise may have been a bit too heavy for the series, and many now claim this to be not only a bad sequel, but one of the worst sequels in history. Personally, I think this film has merits, but before I get into them lets refresh ourselves on the plot.
"...many now claim this to be not only a bad sequel but one of the worst sequels in history"
Bill and Ted are preparing to play in the “Battle of the Bands” contest, hoping a victory will propel them into superstardom. In the Utopian future built around their music, the evil De Nomolos plans to destroy Bill and Ted, thus undoing the Utopia he detests. He uses a time traveling phonebooth to send evil robots clones of Bill and Ted back in time to kill the duo and ruin their chances of becoming rock stars. Rufus is lost in the circuits of time trying to thwart De Nomolos’ plans, and the robots succeed in killing our heroes. While the clone robots sabotage Bill and Teds relationships, the real Bill and Ted travel through the afterlife and hell trying to get home, eventually challenging the Grim Reaper to a game of Battleship and Twister for their souls. After winning, the heroes return home to destroy the robots, winning the competition and bringing peace to the world with their music.
Once again, this stuff is bonkers; the plot is somehow more insane than the original. Now many problems with this sequel come from the fact that the film is much darker in tone and subject matter than its original. Between being killed in high school, travelling through Hell, fighting all their worst nightmares, befriending Death itself and coming back to life; that’s an entirely different feel than the fun time traveling romp of the first film. While I agree that maybe the plot was a bit too dour for this fun lighthearted franchise, I admit I applaud them trying to go somewhere different. It's so easy for any sequel to just rehash the same thing for a quick buck (and admittedly the jokes in this movie fall victim to repeats), but this movie took a chance on trying something new and attempting to take the franchise in a new direction and make the characters grow In some way. I will always appreciate the attempt of change over the continuation of the same old recipe.
The lingo and jokes return, maybe a little too exact for my taste, and the lack of Rufus does make this film feel lesser; I was afraid there was nothing to like in this sequel. Thankfully one new character brings a breath of fresh air to this franchise, despite being the embodiment of death itself. The Grim Reaper, Death, is maybe my favorite side character In this series next to Rufus; his solemn demeanor and stoic nature in the face of Bill and Teds cheery antics is such a delight to watch. Even when they beat him in several games, and he must be their slave forever, he goes along with it all with a scowl and low voice that is the perfect paring to our idiotic adventuring duo.
“Bogus Journey” is frankly not as good as the original film, while it tried to expand the world and characters of Bill and Ted, it swung a little too hard in that direction of “dark and weird” and feels more like a Bill and Ted fever dream than a follow up adventure to the time traveling scavenger hunt we got before. As I said above, I admire them trying to do something new, and perhaps with more emphasis on fun with Death than being tortured by the Devil and evil robots, this could have been a more bodacious time. As it stands now, “Bogus Journey” is simply that; “bogus.”
Between the two films, we got a short-lived animated kid’s show about the many adventures of Bill and Ted, aptly named “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures.” The show only ran for two short seasons, and was cancelled soon into its second season due to low viewership. This show, might just be the most 90’s thing I have ever seen, and I mean that in both good and bad ways. Imagine “The Magic School Bus,” only instead of Ms. Frizzle, its lead by George Carlin, and everyone smoked a joint before the field trip. It’s the silliest and most ridiculously cheesy cartoon I've seen in a long time; made even more crazy when you lean that Reeves, Winter and Carlin all reprised their roles for the first season.
"Imagine “The Magic School Bus,” only instead of Ms. Frizzle, its lead by George Carlin, and everyone smoked a joint before the field trip."
Every episode followed a similar formula, that of Bill and Ted causing some sort of issue, that could only be solved with the help of Rufus taking them to either the future or the past, culminating in either a lesson learned or a crisis averted; a pretty simplistic premise. The show itself is nothing special to mention, just like its live action counterpart (which is by far the worst adaptation of this franchise), and I can’t even recommend it as a fun time waster, as its much more clearly geared for young kids than fans on the franchise. However, you must listen to the theme song to the show because it weirdly might be the greatest thing in Bill and Ted’s history.
I want to end this retrospective talking about the long awaited third (and presumably final) installment in the franchise, “Bill and Ted Face the Music.” They’ve kept much of the plot under wraps for most of production, but what we know at this time is the movie will follow the now adult (and somewhat washed up) versions of Bill and Ted, and a warning from the future that may destroy their Utopian society if they don’t act fast. Much of the original cast is returning, including Carlin as Rufus in some unused footage from previous films. We are also going to meet some new characters like Bill and Ted’s granddaughters, as well as singer Kid Cudi who seems to be playing himself?
I’m definitely interested in seeing where Bill and Ted go next, and maybe this will be the proper follow up to “Excellent Adventure” some feel we never got. Alex Winter has disappeared from the limelight, while Keanu Reeves seems to be having a Keanu-sance with his hit franchise “Jon Wick” and his involvement in the upcoming game “Cyberpunk 2077,” so I'm excited to see these old friends back together for one last show! “Bill and Ted Face the Music” is scheduled for release August 21, 2020.
As I concluded watching both films and two seasons of the animated series, I thought back on why I decided to go through it all for this retrospective. Bill and Ted are just such fun and happy friends who only care about having a good time and rocking out to good tunes; their attitude is infectious. Even when the sequel went dark and the show went childish, something about their demeanor just seeps inside of you and wants to make you pump your fist and shred some metal! Bill and Ted may not be high caliber films, but they are the comfort food equivalent of film; the delicious gooey cheeseburger and chocolate milkshake you love to treat yourself with, even if it’s not exactly the best choice out there. The Wyld Stallyns have always managed to hold a place in the minds of film and rock fans everywhere, and thankfully we get one last show with them this summer; I for one cannot wait. I will leave us all in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln; “be excellent to each other, and PARTY ON DUDES!”