It’s always seemed a bit odd to me that the Back To The Future movies have grown into beloved masterpieces and yet their low budget indie equivalent the Bill & Ted movies have endured a slow march to obscurity. Granted, the Bill & Ted movies are decidedly dumber, just in a deceptively clever way. These are dumb dumb comedies for folks who appreciate such things as much as history, mythology, and art films. They are amongst the most imaginative, stylish, and yes rather intelligent comedies of their era. The two movies play as almost mirror images of each other with the first playing like a goofy time travel cartoon and the sequel a more dark n’ existential… er… cartoon. Both are designed to provide pure joy and dammit they still deliver decades later.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a gloriously stupid comedy designed for pure entertainment. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves embrace the joyful idiocy of their roles with a loving optimism that somehow makes them believable world saviour metalheads. The time travel shenanigans play out with sly intelligence, serving up slapstick that requires pre-reading to get all the jokes (my favourite being Bill and Ted’s mispronunciation of Socrates, a throwaway joke that requires viewers to know how to spell Socrates to get the gag). Director Stephen Herek (Critters) provides a neon early MTV aesthetic that exaggerates everything to meet the script’s heightened tone and makes it all a glorious time capsule of a lost 80s era. Toss in a smirking George Carlin to remind the audience that everyone who made the movie is on the clever joke and you’ve got one of the most purely enjoyable comedies of the 80s. If you can watch Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure without feeling uplifted afterwards, chances are you’re inhuman.
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is another beast altogether. While the original movie was written out of the childish friendship of writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, the sequel came out of the fractured friendship that came in the wake of the original movie’s unexpected success. So this time Bill & Ted get evil robot twins to ruin their lives, kill them, and send them to hell. It’s a bizarrely dark twist on the goofball franchise, filled with references to Ingmar Bergman, Dante’s Inferno, and touches of 90s nihilism. Thankfully, it’s also just as fun. Reeves and Winter are damn delightful once more in dual roles while William Sadler’s jealous and bored game challenged version of Death might be the funniest character in the entire franchise. Director Peter Hewitt (The Borrowers) matches the strange ambition of the script by creating a genuinely unnerving and original vision of hell that also happens to match the cartoon insanity of the series. And somehow despite starting in such a dark place, the film ends on a note just as cheerfully inspiring and irreverent as the original. The movie is perhaps a little overstuffed with ideas/characters and suffers from a clunky first act to set all the pieces in place, yet once Bogus Journey gets going it’s not only a rare comedy sequel that matches the original, but might even top it through good natured darkness and sheer batshit insanity.
Individually, the Bill & Ted movies are a damn delight. Taken together, they are genuinely one of the best and most imaginative Hollywood comedy franchises of their era. The time travel comedies are perfectly cast and thanks to a delayed release of the original, both embody the excesses of 80s and early 90s fashions in an amusingly dated way that only adds to the comedy now. Beyond the hilarity, the movies are beautifully crafted and designed to be rare comedies that feel genuinely cinematic. Sure, these are ultimately silly movies aimed at separating teenagers from their money, but if all such productions were this good no one would complain. It’s a shame this series isn’t as fondly remembered as they should be, yet that makes Bill & Ted cult movies these days and given how goddamn bizarre and unique they are that’s entirely appropriate. It also explains why Shout Factory decided to honour them with the definitive Blu-ray release that should please fans and hopefully find a few new ones.
Both Bill & Ted flicks look absolutely stunning on Blu-ray. Peter Herek ingeniously used cinemascope cinematography and packed those wide frames to make the meagre Excellent Adventure production values feel bigger. The result is a gorgeous Blu-ray that pops with neon 80s detail and will make any HD TV light up. Bogus Journey had a larger budget and put every dollar on the screen with genuinely impressive and creepy visions of the afterlife that look stunning in HD and prove the undeniable power of practical effects. Toss in some well balanced lossless audio tracks filled with screeching guitars and you’ve got a pair of decades old comedies that’ll light up your home entertainment system as well as most contemporary blockbusters.
Shout also packed this three disc set full of extras. First up are two new commentary tracks on each film. The first from producer Scott Kroopf and Alex Winter (aka Bill) is playfully nostalgic and the pair sound like two proud parents recalling special productions that aged far better than they could have expected. Even better are the commentaries by screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. Each commentary takes on a different tone to suit the film. The first is filled with fond memories of creating the characters through improv shows and the unexpected journey of not only getting their crazy movie made, but launching professional writing careers in the process. The second commentary has the writers recall how the old friends were estranged at the time and punished Bill & Ted through the movie (which they both admit is far better than they remembered) as some sort of oddball form of couples’ therapy. Best of all, whenever there is a lull in either track the writers discuss the Bill & Ted prequel that they’ve been writing for a decade and god-willing will happen.
Next up comes all new hour-long documentaries on each movie featuring interviews with nearly every cast member (yes, even Keanu Reeves). These are fantastic, filled with hilarious and surprising stories (including how it took two full years for Excellent Adventure to be released after production). Everyone clearly loves these movies and their affection is infectious. The docs are almost as fun as watching the movies themselves, which is saying a lot since these are amongst the most purely entertaining comedies ever made.
Finally, Shout also piles in all of the old documentaries from Bill & Ted DVDs (which aren’t nearly as good as the new features, but still a nice inclusion for completists). There’s a fun, yet far too brief 30-minute documentary about both movies as well as a far more enjoyable chat with Matheson and Solomon (though it’s not quite as funny and revealingly honest as their commentaries). Toss in a few other featurettes on the music n’ slang as well as vintage EPK for Bogus Journey and you’ve got a set that will take hours to dig through and should make the loyal Bill And Ted-heads incredibly happy. For anyone who has been charmed by this uniquely strange and endlessly entertaining cult comedies, this Blu-ray set is a must own. Thank god there is a company around to give these most triumphant time travelers a box set that finally gives this magically stupid comedies the respect they’ve always deserved.