By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
It might be hard to believe in the age of Netflix, but there was a point where “Beavis and Butthead’ was one of the most popular and controversial things on television. Mike Judge’s first animated show following a duo of idiotic teenagers helped solidify MTV’s former glory, sprung Judge to a successful and underappreciated television career and eventually became one of the defining works of Gen-X culture.
20 years after its initial release, Beavis and Butthead’s feature film “Beavis and Butthead Do America” is being re-released at the Film Anthology Archives on 35mm film on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. The strange and somewhat surreal film serves as a unique opportunity to look back at the 1990s and a former cultural touchstone.
For those unfamiliar, Beavis and Butthead are a pair of dumb, TV-binging, metal-loving teenagers living in New Mexico whose obsessions include making innuendos, hitting on women and inadvertently causing crises. “Beavis and Butthead Do America” is an adaptation that falls under the category of “larger version of the TV series.” When their TV gets stolen, the pair’s quest to find a new one results in them being tangled up in an assassination attempt, as a misunderstanding has them heading to Vegas to “do” someone. From there, they trek across the country, getting tangled in illegal arms deals, AFT intrigue, unexpected reunions with fathers, several famous landmarks being destroyed and an elaborate drug sequence.
The film’s biggest strength is something audiences have loved about Judge’s work for a long time but have struggled to explain: it is simultaneously absurdist and incredibly grounded. The film finds this balance where everything is pushed to the very brink of reality as things become increasingly zany and ridiculous. Somehow, they always stop just before that moment where it becomes completely unbelievable. It also helps that they find a perfect tone where every character really is that stupid. The result is something that is brilliantly deadpan and subdued, despite the incredibly high stakes.
For a team who had up until this point only worked on television, the animation is strong. The signature gross, weird style of the show is maintained, but allowed to indulge with some more cinematic angles and a more varied backgrounds. For the most part, the style is kept simple, continuing its subdued tone. The one exception to this is an elaborate and impressive drug sequence set to metal music that serves as one of the film’s highlights.
Ultimately, the film succeeds because of its confidence in its own stupidity. Following around Beavis and Butthead on their cross-country road trip is fun because they never take it too seriously (they just want a TV). Even their epic or heroic moments are subdued or ridiculous. Every character is so stupid that viewers can’t tell if the film is being dumb or attempting really subtle satire.
Any time it elevates itself from silly and stupid verbal jokes to more elaborate gags, it becomes hysterical. Judge’s team sought to make a massive budget version of series’ absurd, deadpan, irreverent and lewd style to the big screen, and they pulled it off — which might be the best gag of all. They spent $12 million to make a series of elaborate genital jokes.
Coming out before our time, Beavis and Butthead serves as a unique relic into ‘90s America, where disaffection was cool, the “end of history” was near, and TV was the latest thing ruining the youth.
Catch the re-release of “Beavis and Butthead Do America” at the Film Anthology Archives on 35mm film on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m.