WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Two aspiring guitarists seem destined to failure at school and separation, until the intervention of the mysterious Rufus and his time-travelling phone box. Will their race against time see them present their all-important history report and thereby secure the future happiness of the entire planet?
Some films, without even knowing it at the time, capture and shape a moment brilliantly. For the benefit of those who weren’t there or weren’t listening, for a number of years in the late 80s and beyond films such as Bill and Ted’s… and Wayne’s World shaped the vocabulary of English-speaking youngsters with phrases such as ‘Excellent!’ and ‘Party on!’ Not having seen the original Saturday Night Live sketches, I am unable to say whether Bill and Ted or Wayne and Garth first brought these ubiquitous slacker phrases to the world’s attention, but I would like to think the honour lies with this film’s pairing.
The similarities between Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure go beyond vocabulary, as both feature the protagonists as aspiring musicians, creating videos and an awful racket in their parents’ basement/garage. However, unlike the later film, Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves (as Bill and Ted respectively) at least look the same age as the characters they portray; and unlike the later film’s concentration on Myers’ mugging to the camera, Bill and Ted actually have a story to tell.
More concerned with forming a rock band than studying, Ted is threatened with being sent to a military academy in Alaska unless he achieves an extremely unlikely A+ in his and Bill’s history presentation. Unbeknownst to them, the happiness of 27th Century San Dimas, California relies on the success of Wild Stallyns (sic), so a cool dude called Rufus (the late George Carlin) is dispatched to make sure the assignment is a knockout. The boys bag a host of historical figures to give their impressions of present-day San Dimas, impeded by the unreliability of their phone booth, the threat of execution in medieval England, and the meddling of Ted’s uptight father.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has much more to offer than the dumb amiability of its title characters, though this is a good part of its charm (Reeves in particular is uncommonly cheerful). The script makes good use of the double incongruity the plot device offers, getting comedy out of the pair plucking figures such as Socrates, Napoleon, Beethoven and Freud out of history, as well as the historical figures’ reactions to modern day California. The mall scene and Napoleon at the water park are standouts, but there is always something going on in the film that, at a trim 83 or so minutes, never does anything simply to beef up the running time.
It also has fun with its sci-fi elements, the choice of phone box/booth being, presumably, a nod to Dr Who’s TARDIS; and while you can drive yourself mad with the paradox that Rufus would not visit them unless they ultimately succeeded which wouldn’t happen unless Rufus visited them (if you follow me), the film knows and revels in this with the Eddie Van Halen conundrum and the business with Ted’s Dad’s keys. Speaking of Van Halen, the noodly riffs accompanying Bill and Ted’s air guitar movements are also cute.
If I have to gripe, the cursory introduction of the princesses as love interest is so brief as to be almost totally redundant, and Beethoven’s keyboard masterpiece in the shopping mall contains no keyboard whatsoever, as far as I can tell. But the film is full of so much charm, playfulness and invention that you hardly notice flaws, and are left totally inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s exhortation to ‘Be excellent to each other’ during Bill and Ted’s exciting (and educational!) history concert. In an age where comedy is pitched at the level of getting laid, naked or drunk for laughs, to watch a film that entertains by doing none of these things is indeed – how best to put it – most excellent. Bodacious, even.