Our eight-year-old son’s middle name, Rick, was bestowed on him in honor of my dad, a grandfather he’ll never know. Over the years I’ve shown him a few home movies and pictures of my dad, but I keep it short: I miss my dad, I’m sad he’s not around, and I don’t want to bring down my usually enthusiastic, Tigger-like boy. Then, the other day, my husband was driving my son home from a haircut when from the back seat of the car, apropos of nothing, he said, “I wish I could make a time machine so I could go back in time and meet Grandpa Rick.”
My husband was blown away, and asked my son whatever gave him the idea of doing that. He responded with some eye-rolling and then this: “Dad, you’ve shown me four time travel movies” — and then proceeded to rattle them off, counting on his fingers — “all three BACK TO THE FUTURE movies, plus BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE.”
My husband laughed, but also got a little teary-eyed, and couldn’t wait to tell me about it when he got home. This is the kind of moment that happens when you share movies with kids that trigger the imagination, open their minds to dream the impossible, and inspire them to make emotionally resonant meanings and connections with their own lives that might not otherwise have occurred to them. They bring what they’ve seen in the movies into their hearts and minds.
After my husband told me about this conversation, I repeated it to my daughter (she’s also eight, her brother’s twin). Her response was to immediately and emphatically declare her preference for the time machine used in the BACK TO THE FUTURE series, the DeLorean sports car Doc Brown outfits with a “flux capacitor,” over the ordinary phone booth employed in BILL & TED (“The DeLorean’s way cooler”). She then added that “Einstein is a great name for a dog.” Doc Brown’s dog is named for the famed physicist. So we talked about Albert Einstein.
Another benefit of watching BILL & TED was that it prompted me to give my kids a little life guidance. Right after the movie ended, I reminded the kids of what Bill & Ted always say, in addition to “Party On, Dudes.” Their motto is, “Be Excellent To Each Other.” I told my kids, “This is the best part of every religion. It’s about kindness and compassion. It’s how I want you to be to each other — and other people too.” Sure, it’s really just another way of saying the golden rule, but in a way kids actually hear and process. Plus, it sounds really cool when you say it in a Southern California, Bill & Ted kinda Valley-speak accent.
I can’t guarantee these kinds of moments are going to happen if you watch BACK TO THE FUTURE and BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE with the kids in your life. But they might.
Worst case scenario, you’re going to have a lot of fun revisiting these movies while exposing them to fresh eyes.
I graduated college the year the kinetic, Robert Zemeckis-directed BACK TO THE FUTURE came out, and though the movie’s 1950s sequences were probably nostalgic for my parents’ generation when it debuted, watching the 1980s-set portion of the movie has become the real trip back in time. My kids asked about the hairstyles and clothes — mullets, down vests — and made fun of me for knowing all the words to Huey Lewis & The News’ “The Power Of Love” (“Don’t need no credit card to ride that train …” Come on. You remember it, even if you don’t want to admit it.) But the best part of the experience was seeing my kids become fans of Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly) and pop-eyed, manic Christopher Lloyd (Doc Emmett Brown). Reruns of the TV series FAMILY TIES (in which Fox portrayed business-obsessed Alex P. Keaton to his horrified former hippy parents) and TAXI (can anyone forget the Reverend Jim Ignatowski?) may soon be added to our mandatory viewing list. The movie’s 1950s soda fountain, school dance, hot rods and early rock n’ roll are practically prehistoric to today’s kids, but that’s a great way to expose them to the look of ’50s America. The social dynamics within the plot are relatable: kids are very happy to see bully Biff get his come-uppance, and Marty’s nerdy dad turn out to be a big success.
But it’s the notion of time travel that really blows kids minds, and makes them think about what it might have been like to live in times other than their own. The same idea percolates through BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, a light piece of fluff which isn’t as masterfully written, sophisticated and clever as BACK TO THE FUTURE, and doesn’t hold up quite as well, but is still a worthwhile entertainment with some unexpected depth.
Kids instantly get Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted’s (Keanu Reeves) predicament: these two slacker dude high schoolers are on the verge of failing history if they don’t get their oral report done, and in Ted’s case, if that happens, he’s going to be sent off to military school. Soooo not cool! Once they set off in the magic phone booth supplied by their mysterious mentor Rufus (George Carlin), they gather a bunch of historical figures — Socrates, Gengis Khan, Beethoven, Billy The Kid, Joan of Arc, Abe Lincoln, Napoleon and Freud — and bring them to 1989 San Dimas, CA. There, a mall and a water park provide some of the most inventive sequences (Napoleon’s drive to conquer can’t be suppressed at the water park, while Beethoven rocks everyone out at the mall’s keyboard store) . A climactic school assembly in which the historical figures convey their impressions of San Dimas, with some help from the Valley-speaking duo, is a gem. Though the educational value isn’t high, some of it does stick: kids will get a pretty good idea of these famous figures and their historical significance. And any exposure to George Carlin is a good thing in my book, even if they’re not yet ready to hear his bit about the “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television.” NOTE: Some of the jokes in BILL & TED haven’t dated well. There’s a now-offensive joke about gays when the two boys hug and immediately accuse each other of being “fags,” and the women are mostly portrayed as sexy bimbos, but these can be used to spark discussion with older kids.
Both BACK TO THE FUTURE and BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE were followed by less-than-stellar sequels, but if kids are hungry for more, they’re harmless, and the Old West-set BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III is a particularly pleasant introduction to the archetypes of the Western genre.
So take off in that DeLorean or phone booth once again, with some new kid passengers, and see where these ’80s time travel movies take you. To paraphrase Doc Brown, where you’re going, you don’t need roads.
BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale. With Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson.
BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989) directed by Stephen Herek, written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon. With Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin. Catch a cameo by legendary sax man Clarence Clemons.