Comedy writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon were performing in a makeshift improv troupe in Los Angeles when one day they spontaneously started talking in funny, exaggerated California teenager voices. The characters they came up with—“Bill” and “Ted”—weren’t exactly stoners, surfers, or valley guys, but rather two good-hearted, not-too-bright suburban “dudes” who’d spent their whole lives baked in sunshine. Matheson and Solomon loved pretending to be Bill and Ted, who were so enthusiastic and congenial—like the best aspects of their creators, but simplified—so they kept imagining new situations for the characters. When they came up with the idea of Bill and Ted interacting with historical figures, they turned out a movie script in less than a week. When Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was released in 1989, the low-budget comedy became a surprise hit and home-video favorite.
There are multiple reasons why Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is such an entertaining movie even now, but the biggest is that Matheson, Solomon, and director Stephen Herek found the perfect Bill and Ted in Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, two young actors with just the right boyish energy. As these two skip through the timeline, kidnapping the likes of Napoleon, “Sigmund Frood,” “Beeth-oven,” and “So-crates”—all for the sake of passing a high-school history final and assuring a utopian future for their hometown of San Dimas—Winter and Reeves always look like they’re having a most triumphant time, which makes lines like, “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K!” and, “You killed Ted, you medieval dickweed!” and, “Want a Twinkie, Genghis Kahn?” much funnier than they have any right to be.
The 1991 sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is much cleverer, but Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure does have fun with time-travel logic, and is filled with delightful little absurdities like Billy The Kid and Socrates tossing a football around in medieval times. Really, “fun” is the whole reason for the movie, built into the foundation by the joy Matheson and Solomon originally took in being Bill and Ted. The film itself is something of a time machine now, transporting viewers back to the shopping malls, water parks, hair metal, and general frivolity of the ’80s. But from the moment George Carlin appears in the opening scene, like the host of a Rankin-Bass Christmas special, introducing the audience to the wonderful world of tomorrow, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure mostly just comes across as pure, goofy fantasy: an enjoyable space for anyone to inhabit.
Key features: A cheerful 20-minute conversation between Matheson and Solomon (in which, among other things, they reveal that Herek got into the proper mood during his first reading of the script by listening to Van Halen), a tutorial on proper air-guitar technique, and a full episode of the 1990 animated Bill & Ted series.