Herbie: Fully Loaded (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Herbie: the car that won't die. I suppose there are worse ways to spend a summer evening than in the company of this cast and the R2D2-like automobile, but hasn't the day of Herbie come and gone? The Love Bug first made its appearance in the 1968 film, Herbie the Love Bug, a low-budget, low-concept Disney film starring Dean Jones. When the movie struck box office gold, a sequel was born, although it took that movie, Herbie Rides Again, six years to reach theaters. 1977 and 1980 saw two more Herbie movies, then there was a short-lived TV series in 1982. Still not dead, the VW with more lives than a cat returned for a 1997 TV movie. Now, eight years later, Disney has dusted off the car once more and paired it with pre-teen draw Lindsay Lohan for a film that's as much a remake as it is a continuation of the "legend." (Casting note: Dean Jones, who appeared in all of the previous incarnations of Herbie except Herbie Rides Again, is nowhere to be found in this movie. It would have been a classy move to give him a cameo, although I'm not sure how many members of the audience would have recognized him.)

The story is straightforward, as one would expect from a movie aimed at the pre-puberty crowd. It's part girl-power inspiration and part sports movie, and anyone who doesn't know beforehand how The Big Race is going to turn out should be ashamed of himself or herself. That's one annoying thing about films like this that close with obligatory closing games/races/matches/etc. – there's no suspense. It's anti-climactic since we know what the result has to be. There's no mystery, and only the most skilled director can invest this event with energy. Angela Robinson is not up to the task. The lengthy Nextel Championship NASCAR race that represents Herbie: Fully Loaded's final lap is plodding. It's duller than watching a crash-free car race on television.

During the opening credits, we are given a brief recap of the rise and fall of Herbie over the years. The story picks up with the bug's arrival at Crazy Dave's Scrap and Salvage, where the crusher awaits. However, just as Herbie is about to be pancaked, it catches the attention of Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan), who buys the car for $75. This represents a graduation present from her father, Ray (Michael Keaton), who proudly announces that his daughter is the first one in the family to earn a college diploma But the Peytons have racing in their blood (Ray and his father were famous drivers, and Maggie's brother is trying to qualify for The Big Race), and Maggie is no exception. Since being injured in a crash several years ago, Maggie has avoided getting behind the wheel. But when she meets Herbie, things change. The VW has a mind of its own, and it forces Maggie to challenge top NASCAR driver Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) to a street race. When Herbie and Maggie win, Trip becomes determined to arrange a re-match, and claim victory at all costs. Meanwhile, Maggie must lie to Ray about racing again, since her father has forbidden her to become involved in any kind of competitive driving.

Herbie: Fully Loaded is about the relationship between Maggie and her dad (a girl finding her own way and earning her father's respect in the process) and about the relationship between a girl and her best friend, which happens to be a car. There's also a little romance thrown in, with Justin Long playing Maggie's love interest, but this is insubstantial enough to be disregarded. (And, considering that the writers are worse than George Lucas at conceiving a love story, ignoring it is the best approach.) It's a classic underdog overcomes story, with Maggie and Herbie functioning as the unlikeliest of champions. Together they find victory while apart they face defeat.

There's nothing new to be found here, although director Robinson's approach is workmanlike (if not inspired). The movie is pleasant but unspectacular, and at times it borders on being too cute. The car is the source of most of the laughs as it winks its headlights, smiles using its front bumper, and uses its trunk to conk meddlers on the head. There's an amusing "love scene" in which Herbie notices a newer, sexy VW. The windshield fogs up and the antenna snaps to attention. This is one of the few instances in which the movie throws in a moment for the grown-ups.

As bright a starlet as she may be, Lohan ends up playing second fiddle to the car. The actress was more of a standout in Mean Girls, but it's tough to call this a step back because the screenplay doesn't give her a lot to work with. This isn't a challenging role, and she does as much with it as any actress her age could. Internet rumors indicate that the CGI artists at Disney digitally reduced her breast size to prevent her assets from becoming "a distraction." Either this is untrue, it was done sparingly, or "ample" would be an understated description. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton sleepwalks through a performance that doesn't require more than that he look fatherly. Matt Dillon invests his bad guy with some energy, but it's still a throwaway part. Breckin Meyer (playing Maggie's brother) and Justin Long are forgettable.

As family films go, Herbie: Fully Loaded is adequate fare. Children will probably enjoy it and most parents will be able to tolerate it. It's a breezy affair that doesn't overstay its welcome, and there are plenty of '80s songs on the lively soundtrack. I suppose Herbie has some nostalgic appeal, but the main draw will be to a new generation. It remains to be seen whether Herbie: Fully Loaded gives the car another lease on life or finally sends it to the cinematic junkyard.

Herbie: Fully Loaded (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2005-06-22
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1