Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves), of the eponymous Bill & Ted franchise, are gentle souls. These two gentlemen of San Dimas are passionate about music, girls, and not much else — especially school, work, and, uh, actually learning to play instruments. They might seem dumb, but that's only because they are.
If you're unfamiliar, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure kicks off with the two of them facing a failing grade in history. If they fail, Ted's father will send him to military school in Alaska, which would tank any chance of their band, Wyld Stallyns, of getting off the ground. This is bad for Bill and Ted, but also bad for the future, since the utopia of the far-off year of 2688 is based entirely on their music and teachings. This dire situation requires the intervention of a future operative and a time-traveling phone booth to ensure they pass their history test.
This, of course, is accomplished by these two slackers traveling through history and kidnapping historical figures to stage the GREATEST ORAL HISTORY REPORT OF ALL TIME. Imagine two good-hearted burnouts playing Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? but, like, for realsies to save the future. (Sidebar: Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? dropped in 1989 … the same year Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure released in theaters. Siri, play the X-Files theme song.)
Oh, except that instead of making you feel superior about your world history skills, it's like getting a beam of sunshine delivered directly to your brain. There are many films in this world that focus on two idiots bumbling through an adventure: Dumb and Dumber, Zoolander, the list goes on. But what sets Bill and Ted apart is that they are thoroughly decent, kind, and good-hearted dudes — they're just also teenage boys still learning basic life skills like time management and resource allocation.
Like a lot of fictional comedy duos without a brain cell to rub together, there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between Bill and Ted at first glance. Even Winter has professed to finding them so similar he and Reeves occasionally mixed up who was who. Making your choice between them, should you be a male-attracted human interested in acquiring a high-quality new crush, might seem to be largely a matter of aesthetics. Do you like blondes making a bold (and correct) statement about crop tops on men, or do you like dark, floppy hair and vests? But throughout the films, Reeves imbues Ted with a touch more dreaminess than Winter's slightly more practical Bill. (Slightly, of course: Bill insists on calling himself "Bill S. Preston, Esquire," which is something you only call a practicing lawyer. It's a toss-up if Bill doesn't know or just doesn't care.)
Seeing Keanu Reeves as Ted is like seeing the best golden retriever on the street and then being the only one who gets to pet it. He's all floppy hair, smiles, and big, telegraphed emotions. There's a reason "Conspiracy Keanu" remains a popular meme to this day, despite being of the older image macro vintage — you can hear Ted's distress from a mile away. Ted is emotionally available and honest in a rare and deeply appealing way, largely because he's not smart enough to lie. (Though, being a teenage boy from the late '80s, he does stumble — when he and Bill embrace after a near-death experience in a sweet gesture of friendship, the two do immediately pull a "no homo" via slur, which I'd be remiss not to mention.)
Ted is also an absolute joy to listen to. Ted's vocabulary indicates a mastery of both rocker slang and the English language at large, an erudite combination that betrays his surfer bro cadence. Ted can swing between referring to Sigmund Freud as "Frood-dude" and lyrically bemoaning his fate. Honestly, listening to Ted rhapsodize makes me want to pull out Much Ado About Nothing to see Reeves take on the Bard. And who on God's green earth has demonstrated the wide, beautiful utility of a well-timed "whoa" like Keanu Reeves? No one. Absolutely no one.
One of my tiny favorite things about Ted is the way he moves. While Bill is slightly punchier, Ted has a friendly, loping walk that reminds me of a very confident Muppet. Life is not always excellent to Ted. He dies by being tossed off of a Star Trek set piece and ends up having to navigate Hell in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. Nonetheless, he faces the world with grace and an open heart. Reeves is a master of physicality — have you seen a John Wick? If you haven't, you should rectify this immediately — and it's touching to see it start this early in his career with this sweet dumb kid.
Others have played Ted since Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. While Reeves lent his voice to the first season of the animated Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures (yes, this happened), he was replaced by Christopher Kennedy, who also played Ted in the live-action Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures (yes, this also happened), for the second. There was Norman Bowman in Bill & Ted's Excellent Musical Adventure (YES, THIS HAPPENED), which ran for three weeks in Edinburgh.
But while Kennedy does an admirable job with the baroque speech patterns that might fell a lesser dude, he's approaching the role from the outside in, focusing on the mannerisms rather than Ted's inner life. It's Reeves who imbues Ted with the ability to make a whole room light up.
We'll be blessed with another visitation of this most good dude and his boon companion next August when Bill & Ted Face the Music is released. According to Deadline, the now middle-aged rockers set out on a time-travel adventure with their daughters (Billie and Thea) to find the song that will save the universe. I can only imagine the amount of joy Ted will get out of a well-timed dad joke.