Like most great adventures with humble beginnings, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is the story of two young men attempting to pass their history class. These days, when you think of the names “Bill and Ted” together, in that order, you think of air guitar solos, offbeat history lessons, a pleasant wave of hyper-saturated neon colors, and the beginning of an A-list movie star’s career. But in February 1989, when Excellent Adventure debuted in theaters, Bill and Ted weren’t yet the standard to which all well-meaning slackers aspire, and neither of its stars had become the successes they one day would. They were just two guys, incapable of pronouncing Socrates and fixated on getting the Wyld Stallyns off the ground, who had to nail a final oral presentation to avoid being shipped off to Alaskan military school. We all start small.
For audiences who may not recall the time, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is as potent an illustration of late-’80s pop culture as any existing today. Like an episode of The Magic School Bus filtered through the stoned drawl of suburban California culture, Excellent Adventure is washed in the milieu of the time in which it was made. Its square adults are snapshots of an aging boomer culture that wouldn’t seem so sweet a few years later, its goofy earnestness a predecessor of the post-ironic cynicism that would take over so much of the following decade. It’s a world built from packed bowling alleys, tacky-yet-bustling shopping malls, and quirky burnouts triumphing over their repressive teachers and parents. It exists at a strange nexus after Reagan and before grunge, at the end of the Cold War and before the modern conflicts with the Middle East. Much like Bill and Ted themselves, Bill & Ted seems out of place in the time it was made, and yet in the same breath, the film fits it like a glove.
That sense of anachronism extends to the movie itself, which remains as charming as ever these days. Unlike so many comedies of the era, Excellent Adventure lacks the mean streak that tended to simmer under even the nicest-seeming protagonists. For William S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves), life follows a simple pair of rules, rules which will eventually go on to dictate the ideals of future society: “be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes!” However, in the present, this mostly means arguments about whether a righteous music video or the recruitment of Eddie Van Halen to play in the Wyld Stallyns will be their fastest ticket to fame, fortune, and babes. They’re good dudes in desperate need of direction, and so when they’re threatened with failing history for not having learned anything in an entire school year, Rufus (George Carlin) is sent back through time to encourage them. This encouragement involves a time-traveling phone booth (unlike the TARDIS, it’s no bigger on the inside), a list of historical prompts for the final class presentation, and two young mens’ newfound willpower to succeed. Or, at least, to not fail.
As they meet everybody from Billy the Kid to Genghis Khan to So-crates, Bill and Ted never stop being exactly who they are, which undoubtedly has as great a role as any in explaining the film’s continued appeal. It’s in the two of them that the film finds its heart and soul (it’s otherwise an ensemble fish-out-of-water comedy at feature length), and it’s in their performances that Excellent Adventure distinguishes itself from so many other paeans to suburban teen culture of the time. Winter plays the relative straight man to perfection as Bill, whose hyper-enunciated word deliveries (they get so much comic mileage out of refusing to use contractions) and half-lucid logic forms so much of the film’s sense of humor. And as Ted, Reeves gives the turn that would make his breakout performance in Speed five years later an even greater sense of surprise. While there’s certainly a bit of swagger behind Ted’s dorky open-minded optimism, in its way, there’s nothing about him that says he knows it, and that’s arguably the quality that’s made him such a star.
Excellent Adventure does right by its unassuming boys, situating them in a movie that follows their lead instead of encouraging audiences to laugh at them. Bill and Ted approach the world (and its history) in ways from which we could all stand to learn a little something. At no point are they especially mean to anybody they encounter, however confusing their various destinations might be, and there’s even a little bit of genuine poignance in the way that their ideologies and that of Abraham Lincoln end up being sympathetic. “Be excellent to each other” is a funny thing to say to the San Dimas citizenry of 2688, sure, but it’s also the kind of ethos to which we should all aspire, the kind of open-minded, one-size-fits-all ethic that generally makes for better people. Nobody else but them seems to get it, but hey. Nobody else needs to. One of the key aspects of being good is not looking for approval for it.
And approval is the last thing on either young man’s mind. They just want to pass the class, get Ted’s stern father off both their backs, and get back to what really counts: the Wyld Stallyns. At a brisk, constantly moving 91 minutes, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure does just as much in its short runtime as the boys do in their overnight adventure. It teaches a little history, imparts some lessons about the value of excellence, finds a wealth of laughs in the razor-sharp line readings of its two leads, and offers a snapshot of a moment in American culture that came and went pretty quickly. Most importantly, though, it teaches us that intelligence is relative, and that even the unlikeliest heroes can rise to the occasion with time. After all, consider what became of them after thirty years. Bill is now the director of several well-regarded documentaries, and Ted is John fucking Wick. Believe in the brilliant minds around you, even if the way they express themselves doesn’t always make sense. You can never tell what potential they’re hiding from you.