Strange things are afoot at the Circle K… Ted “Theodore” Logan and Bill S. Preston Esq are in danger of flunking school most heinously if they fail their history exam, and if they do they’ll have to break up their totally bodacious band, Wyld Stallynds. No way!
Just a few weeks before the release of third instalment Bill & Ted Face The Music – which sees the lovable dimwits middle-aged and still musically unsuccessful – a new version of the very first film has been released, in 4K HD and with a plethora of really rather good extras. It’s enough to make one say “my goodness, that’s tremendous news!”
I was a film-obsessed 18 year old when Excellent Adventure was released and it was an extremely amusing amuse-bouche before my main-course angsty indies and sexy French desserts.
Watching it is like re-reading emails and letters from a long-term friend who you remember was funny, but not quite how funny – and good-natured, and idiosyncratic (and, thanks to 4k, how well-preserved for their age).
The story, if you don’t know it – or you only recall a phone box, certainly not larger on the inside, crammed with some of the biggest historical figures who ever lived, mostly men – is this.
Rufus (George Carlin) is sent from 2688 back to 1988 to ensure Bill S. Preston Esq and Ted “Theodore” Logan pass their history class, which they can only do by pulling off a truly exel… super end-of-year history report, showing what a historical figure would make of San Dimas today.
If they fail the class, Ted’s dad, the local police captain, is sending Ted (Keanu Reeves) to military school in Alaska, and he and Bill (Alex Winter) will be split up forever. Bill and Ted’s band, Wyld Stallyns, and their music, are the foundations on which a new, peaceful and fair society will be built so it’s essential they remain as one.
So off the two teens go in Rufus’s phone box. They don’t initially plan to bring back these figures. It’s when Napoleon (Terry Camilleri) accidentally gets caught in their time-travelling tail winds and ends up in late-80s San Dimas that they realise they could bring back the people themselves to deliver first person reviews.
With Napoleon (short and enjoyably cross) palmed off on Ted’s snotty little brother Deacon, they head into the past and collect Billy the Kid from 19th century New Mexico, Socrates from Athens in 410 BC, Ghengis Khan from 13th century Outer Mongolia, Beeth-oven, “Siggy” Freud, Joan of Arc, and Abraham Lincoln, only for them all to disappear into the San Dimas shopping mall and get themselves arrested by Ted’s dad.
Will Bill and Ted manage to spring them from the cells and get them to the school auditorium for the history report? And the greatest mystery of all, when did they manage to actually prepare the report if time continues to tick over in San Dimas? (I’ll admit the science, real or fake, of potential time travel is not my strong point.)
Their dialogue is so quotable I thought I’d remembered all of it, though once we were past the memes it turned out some of what I was recalling was from Wayne’s World. Can you believe Ted never actually mentions “Baberaham Lincoln”?
Bill and Ted are undeniably cartoonish in their delivery – when they have a bright idea I half-expect to see fizzing lightbulbs on their heads. But their relationship is touching and very human. While Ted is super-dopey, Bill looks out for him. He’s cleverer – only marginally, don’t get your hopes up – and his synapses are firing off in a less random fashion than Ted’s.
Still, while Ted often asks Bill what they should do next, he does think outside the box. (I suspect we first started saying that when the film came out. It’s surely due a non-ironic resurgence now.) When they are stuck one million years BC, Ted gets all the historical figures to chew gum for Bill to use mending the phone box’s antenna.
Their delighted realisation that they can fix supposedly insurmountable, urgent problems by remembering in the future to travel into the past, leaving helpful items in the right place, is a hoot. Police cell keys, a tape recorder and a giant bin make appearances, the best explanation for deus ex machina I’ve seen.
Keanu Reeves shows again what a great physical performer he is, all gangly arms and legs, his limbs too large for his body. He lopes about, a huge mop of chestnut hair atop a long body. His real life friendship with Winter is obvious, and gives the movie real heart.
They grow up a lot – well, a bit – on their travels, but they are always overgrown kids. Despite the real dangers they face in medieval England they still have time for a Star Wars fight in suits of armour, and there’s a big misunderstanding when they’re told they will have to suffer the Iron Maiden.
That armour interlude ties for the movie’s best physical comedy scene with their New Mexico bar-room brawl. Both teens are thrown down along the bars, sliding to the end where their heads punch right through the far wall into a dressing room full of young ladies.
The historical figures get on pretty well, with Billy the Kid (Dan Sho) and Socrates (Tony Steedman) a particularly good partnership – whether stealing the limelight from Bill and Ted by mucking around in the background, or rescuing them. Socrates’s look of delight when he reveals himself to Ted after he and Mr The Kid have saved the teens from beheading in Merrie England is most trium… very sweet.
There’s a warning at the beginning about some attitudes being outdated, though those are few and far between.
Whenever I rewatch this I do have questions though. Where are Bill and Ted’s mums? Do the historical figures find out they’re going to die horribly? Couldn’t they have kept Joan of Arc and set her up as an aerobics teacher?
Despite those worries, none of which entered my mind in 1989, this is still a daft, very funny, and useful history lesson. I felt genuinely terrible when Ted mentions a woman has just told him Marco Polo was the year 1275. I knew next to nothing about Marco Polo. Since then I’ve been googling like mad and now I know a lot about Marco Polo.
I will also no longer mock their pronunciation of So-crates now I know that I too have been pronouncing it wrong my whole life (and I have an actual philosophy degree). The man himself calls himself Soh-CRAH-tiz.
Perhaps I need to accept that, as Socrates, Bill and Ted are well aware, “the only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing”.
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