I’m old enough to remember when Beavis and Butt-Head premiered on MTV back in 1993 and certain pundits greeted the misadventures of these two fire-loving, TV-obsessed juvenile delinquents as a sign of the pending cultural apocalypse. The characters were either a warning cry about a generation raised and desensitized by music videos or, worse, they were a potential inspiration for impressionable young viewers.
Those pundits didn’t understand the satirical edge of Mike Judge’s animated comedy, but if we’re being perfectly honest, neither did a lot of the show’s fans.
Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe
The Bottom Line
An often clever return.
Nearly 30 years later, Beavis and Butt-Head are returning for a new run of episodes on Paramount+, preceded by the feature-length Beavis and Butt-head Do the Universe and one thing is shockingly clear: Beavis and Butt-Head may be puerile to a dangerous degree, but as alienated loners — at least they have each other — with low IQs and an oversaturated media diet go, they’re unsettlingly close to the best-case scenario.
Although the entire purpose of the 86-minute Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe is to situate the characters in a modern context, maybe you’ll be able to watch the new movie without dwelling, in the thankfully-rare slow moments, on how the actual Beavises and Butt-Heads of 2022 would behave — where they’d congregate and what outlets they would find for their disaffection. I could not. Thanks to the less-than-benign passage of time, Beavis and Butt-Head have gone from confrontational, anti-social spuds raised on heavy metal and the distant promise of sexuality to non-threatening relics. And they’re probably safer that way.
That doesn’t mean Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe isn’t funny. It’s frequently funny and occasionally savage in its commentary on the changed terrain. But in proving that Beavis and Butt-Head absolutely have a place in the contemporary world, it suggests that there’s a limit to how deeply we probably want to interrogate that place.
Written by Judge and Lew Morton, Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe begins in 1998 with the boys misbehaving at the Highland High School Science Fair, where they’re unable to decide if their current experiment — Butt-Head attempting to see how many times he can kick Beavis in the balls before Beavis passes out — counts as “scientific.” When chaos and, inevitably, fire ensue, Beavis and Butt-Head are hauled in front of a judge who sentences them to a summer at NASA Space Camp. At the Johnson Space Center — heh-heh-heh, “Johnson” — Beavis and Butt-Head’s unexpected comfort with a particularly sexual piece of docking machinery introduces them to the captain (Andrea Savage’s Serena) of an upcoming mission to the space station. She invites them to join the mission, which they interpret as an invitation to score with her.
Before you can say “This sounds like a plot line from For All Mankind,” Beavis and Butthead cause a catastrophe in space, get sucked into a black hole — heh-heh-heh, “hole” — and find themselves in a 2022 full of technology and terminology they don’t understand, all while being pursued by shadowy government forces and versions of Beavis and Butt-Head from an alternate dimension.
Over three decades with these characters, Judge has developed a pretty solid sense of scale. Like 1996’s Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe actually feels designed for a feature-length running time, rather than a padded 22-minute TV episode. The plot, in which Beavis and Butt-Head’s desire to get laid leads them on a journey across space, time and Texas, is full of complications and sufficiently justifiable narrative detours, including a university and a prison. Although there isn’t some gigantic leap forward in the quality of the animation, there are actual set pieces, like an extended climactic car chase, and no shortage of wonderfully silly musical montages. It’s all forward-moving plot, too. Like the earlier movie, this isn’t a vehicle for commenting on videos or MTV programming.
There will be time to return to Beavis and Butt-Head’s status as couch-bound TV critics when the episodic series returns, but in the short term, the movie has the characters addressing certain key aspects of current life. There are obvious and unavoidable things like Beavis and Butt-Head having their first experiences with smart phones and Siri, and then the movie goes deeper to educate (with limited success) our protagonists about white privilege and the flaws of the prison industrial complex. And yes, that means you can expect bizarre people in your social media feeds to complain that they liked Beavis and Butt-Head more before they “got woke” — probably some of the same people who have been forced to recognize that Homelander is not, in fact, a hero on The Boys. Textual analysis is not for everybody.
Fortunately, I suppose, Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe is full of the usual lowbrow hijinks, whether it’s the funny-sounding words that make both teens chortle or the endless pleasure that comes — for viewers, not for Beavis — from Butt-Head’s all-out assault on his friend’s testicles. There’s the usual excitement about fire and, yes, Cornholio makes an appearance. Because of the road-trip aspect of the plot, there isn’t time to include many of the beloved pieces of the original show’s ensemble, though there are a handful of quick cameos at the beginning for the easily satisfied. And the new vocal cast, led by Savage, Nat Faxon, Chi McBride and Gary Cole, isn’t bad either.
It’s all capped with enough sincere beats tied to Beavis and Butt-Head’s friendship and even Beavis’ first budding feelings of love that the movie is able to avoid tonal monotony. I started this review by say that, all things considered, Beavis and Butt-Head were always on a particular path and so far they’ve ended up being funny and pathetic, but not sad and scary. We’ll see how the upcoming series is able to walk that delicate line. So far, the laughs are still there.