Walt Disney died in 1966. Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg took the reins of the studio named after him, and thus ushered in the Disney "renaissance," in 1984. The period between these two dates is usually regarded as something of a Dark Age for the company, as it fumbled about, looking for a vision, and trotted out mostly bland family entertainment that bore little of Uncle Walt's showmanship or creative ingenuity. And the character who best typifies this era may be Herbie, the Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of his own.
Herbie first revved his engines in The Love Bug (1968), which showed audiences how proud and occasionally childlike a machine could be, years before R2-D2 came along. The film tapped into the hippie generation's fondness for Beetles and explained this particular vehicle's unique personality by appealing to a then-trendy form of eastern spirituality, which held that all things have an inner life. (The film's star, Dean Jones, later became a born-again Christian and has since starred in a number of religious films.) The Bug went on to appear in three more movies—Herbie Rides Again (1974), Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977) and Herbie Goes Bananas (1980)—and a short-lived TV series in 1982.
And that was that; when the Disney studio's fortunes began to look up, they put Herbie in mothballs. So it is tempting to regard Herbie: Fully Loaded, the Love Bug's first spin through theatres in a quarter-century, as a sign that things have become rather dire at the Disney studio once again. (And after the collapse of the studio's traditional hand-drawn animation division, the possible end of its relationship with Pixar, and the series of expensive flops it churned out last year, things might be very dire indeed.)
Alas, this film will not do much to restore Disney's fortunes. Hardcore Herbie fans—and there must be some out there—might appreciate the way the film's five credited writers have incorporated elements from the earlier films into this one; but for the rest of us, it comes across as one trip to the well too many. Once again, Herbie loses the will to live when his driver seems to abandon him (though he does not quite attempt suicide this time), and once again, Herbie falls in love with a much younger car; but these things seem to happen more as homages to the earlier films than for any internal narrative reason.
The been-there-done-that feeling is further exacerbated by the fact that the star of this film is Lindsay Lohan, who made her name as the star of the earlier Disney remakes The Parent Trap (1998) and Freaky Friday (2003). Lohan seemed to be moving in a more sophisticated direction with last year's Mean Girls, and her performance in Fully Loaded is so uninspired, you figure she knows it's a career step backwards, too. To her credit, and unlike her archnemesis Hilary Duff (The Perfect Man), Lohan does seem to want to grow up—her character, Maggie Peyton, is a college graduate—but she pretty much sleepwalks through this film.
In case we were wondering where Herbie had been all this time, the opening credits offer a recap of his earlier successes and play with our nostalgia for the past; alluding to the car's racing number, one passing headline reads, "53 parties at Studio 54," while another lets us know that Herbie hung out with KITT, the car from the 1980s TV series Knight Rider. But then Herbie hits the skids, moonlighting as a taxi before he is finally sold for scrap.
While he may have ended up on the junk heap, Herbie himself has been given a makeover, and is much more animated than he ever was before. In the past, we almost had to take it on faith that there was a soul inside the little Bug, but now, his front lights have the equivalent of eyelids, and his front bumper curls into smiles and frowns as though it were a mouth. What's more, when Maggie comes to the salvage yard looking for a used car—a graduation present from her father Ray (Michael Keaton)—Herbie flaps his doors and waves his wipers in a vain attempt to get her attention. And when she finally does buy him, Herbie pushes her into a street race against NASCAR champion Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon), which the Love Bug proceeds to win with the help of computer-animated effects.
Humiliated by his defeat, Trip arranges a rematch; and despite the fact that Trip's loss was broadcast all over the news, no one ever figures out that the Bug with the distinctive markings has what you might call a history of unusual victories. (All those headlines in the opening credits have apparently been forgotten by now.) Meanwhile, Ray forbids Maggie to race, so she lies to him and says she has been lending the car to a friend of hers; and Ray, despite never having met or heard of this friend before, believes her. The only person who knows Maggie's secret, and who quickly comes to share her belief in Herbie, is her mechanic and sort-of boyfriend Kevin (Justin Long, nicely amusing in a thankless role).
Maggie's family background is another of the film's half-baked contrivances. Ray, a former race car driver himself, forbids Maggie to race because his wife died some time ago and Maggie looks just like her and he doesn't want to lose his wife twice, or words to that effect. At this point, those who saw Racing Stripes—that's the one about the talking zebra who races against horses—may recall that the human-interest story in that film also concerned a safety-conscious widower and his more adventurous daughter. But while those actors almost redeemed their movie through the conviction they brought to their roles, Keaton and Lohan just go through the motions. Meanwhile, Maggie also has a brother (Breckin Meyer) who exists for no other purpose than to provide a loophole by which Maggie can enter herself and Herbie, against all odds, into a full-fledged NASCAR race.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Herbie: Fully Loaded is its reliance on pop and rock oldies by the likes of Boston, Loverboy, Van Halen, Lionel Richie, and/or the present-day artists who cover them. Hearing these tunes, one is reminded that Disney was never hip enough to use music like this back when it was brand new—presumably they can use such music now because it has been rendered safe by age—and one is also sobered by the realization that most of these songs, and all the Herbie movies too for that matter, came out well before Lohan had even been conceived. Full disclosure: the first movie I can remember seeing is Herbie Rides Again, and songs like "Jump" and "Hello" loom larger in my memories of high school than I care to admit. And pondering these things can sure make a guy feel old.Discussion starters
- Why does Maggie lie to her father? What would you do in that situation if you were her? If you were him? Do you think his concerns are justified?
- Does Herbie need Maggie, or any other driver for that matter? (Note the scene where Maggie says it felt like she and Herbie were "connected or something.") How does this reflect our own need for relationships? Why do you think a driver who had recognized Herbie's unique personality would get rid of him?
- Why does Herbie foil Maggie's attempts to win another car, knowing what it might mean for his own future? Why do we sometimes try to hurt people even though it will mean hurting ourselves, too? Herbie is called a "proud" car. Is pride good? Bad? Both?
- How does this film's portrayal of Herbie differ from that of the other films? How does the different portrayal—such as his more animated expressions, or the use of point-of-view shots—affect our response to him as a character? Is he more believable? Less?
- Maggie tells one friend that she, too, had a hard time believing that Herbie was a person, but "then I embraced the mystery that is Herbie." In what way are the human beings you know "mysteries"? In what way is God a "mystery"? How do we "embrace" mysteries?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Herbie: Fully Loaded is rated G and is fine for family viewing. The characters say a few "Oh my Gods," and a couple of them joke about the car being "possessed." Trip Murphy also alludes to his success with the ladies in a discrete way that will fly over most kids' heads.
Photos © Copyright Walt Disney Pictures
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 06/23/05
It's a season of "car-driven" remakes at the Cineplex. Batman Begins boasts a way-cool Batmobile, The Dukes of Hazzard rev their engines on the silver screen in a few weeks, and now, Walt Disney's beloved Volkswagen "Herbie" is returning to theaters. Can Knight Rider's Trans Am and The A-Team's battle-armored van be far behind?
Disney is clearly hoping that the Herbie series, which once starred Dean Jones, will now serve as a blockbuster "vehicle" for a very different celebrity—teen superstar Lindsay Lohan. Hey … re-working Disney's Freaky Friday and The Parent Trap worked just fine for Lohan, so why not the Bug?
According to Christian press critics, it could have been worse. But is it any good?
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) takes a more positive spin. "Never taking itself too seriously, Herbie: Fully Loaded imparts a lighthearted underdog message about friendship, loyalty, honesty and the bonds of family."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says the movie "is fast moving and adorable with its campy, sometimes slapstick humor. It appeals to very young children with its silly antics, to teens with the stars being Lindsay Lohan and Justin Long, and to adults, who will likely remember '80s heartthrob, Matt Dillon, and who will enjoy seeing Michael Keaton again. … The movie speaks a message of hope to the hearts of those with big, unfulfilled dreams—especially girls."
Mainstream critics aren't pulling this little car over, but they're not calling it the Car of the Year either.from Film Forum, 06/30/05
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Lindsay Lohan … does wonderful work here in what will most probably be her last 'adolescent' role, but it is the bug itself that makes the film so much fun for old and young alike. Herbie: Fully Loaded is a true family film in that all ages will find something to appreciate."
Tom Price (Hollywood Jesus) says, "It's good, wholesome and light-hearted entertainment for families—the kind that makes for a good summer afternoon outing."