...exactly what we can count on from a Disney comedy these days--weightless, nonabrasive entertainment, appealing mainly to the youngest of children.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Look. What's that up in the sky, up there, floating away in the heavens? It's, it's, yes, it's a movie! "Herbie: Fully Loaded" is so lightweight, so insubstantial, the softest breeze is enough to send it off into the clouds.

The Disney folks are probably the most adept in the world at producing sequels, spin-offs, and remakes, and the 2005 release "Herbie: Fully Loaded" is yet another in a long line of movie and TV sequels to their 1968 comedy classic, "The Love Bug." Like most sequels, this one doesn't live up to the original.

You remember Herbie, the sweet little '63 Volkswagen beetle with the mind (and flight plan) of its own. Well, he's still winning races and hearts. Yet I grieve for Disney. Until the last few years, the studio used to be so creative, so original. Now, they're distributing other companies' products and recycling their own material in a multitude of new formats--special editions, direct-to-video continuations, and rebuilds like "Herbie." No, I don't grieve that the studio is losing money; that will never happen. In fact, "Herbie" showed a healthy profit. I grieve for the loss of the traditional 2-D animation and the imaginative live-action comedies and adventures that Disney used to do so well. It's a temporary aberration, let us hope.

The movie begins during the opening titles with a retrospective of Herbie's earlier racing career and his subsequent fall from grace. After an illustrious calling on the track, Herbie got old and worn down and was finally put on the scrap heap at Crazy Dave's Salvage, about to be demolished. That's when the heroine enters the picture. She's Maggie Peyton, played by Disney protégé Lindsay Lohan ("The Parent Trap," "Freaky Friday"). Maggis has just graduated from college, and her dad (Michael Keaton) offers to buy her any car in Dave's junk yard.

Naturally, she picks Herbie. Or more precisely, Herbie picks her. It's all remarkably silly stuff, and Herbie's ability to think and act for himself makes up the flimsy substance of this recycled comedy. Herbie's anthropomorphic antics seemed like a clever idea thirty-seven years ago and good for at least one go-round, but now he and his shenanigans just seem tired and trite. Still, who else is doing this sort of non-offensive, family-oriented humor at all except Disney? So it's no wonder the film did well; it not only had a built-in reputation, it's practically the only show of its kind in town.

Anyway, by coincidence, Maggie's family has racing in their blood. Her grandfather was a NASCAR champion, her brother (Brecklin Meyer) is a NASCAR racing driver, and her father is the manager of the family NASCAR racing team. So Herbie fits right into the scheme of things. However, you'd think that if Herbie was so famous as a racing car in his day that the Peytons, who live and breath nothing but racing, would have immediately recognized him. They don't. Obviously, that's part of the movie's whimsy. We're not expected to believe a moment of anything that happens.

Maggie takes the aged wreck home and turns him over for repairs to an old high school friend, Kevin (Justin Long), who owns a custom-car shop. Yet neither Kevin nor Maggie thinks it at all unusual that the car would take off and drive on its own and wink at them and show definite signs of having an actual personality. They just shrug it off. Actually, I thought the car was pretty scary, like something out of a Stephen King horror story. Herbie, meet Christine. The car is possessed.

The major conflict in the film involves Maggie's dilemma of having to decide what to do with her life: accept a reporting job she's been offered with ESPN or pursue the racing profession her father wants her desperately to stay out of. Guess who helps her make up her mind?

More to the point is the villain in the story, Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon), a hotshot, egotistical NASCAR racing driver who is continually bested by little Herbie. Thank goodness for this subplot; it's the only thing in the film that sustains any interest, no matter how clichéd it may be.

Lindsay Lohan has undoubtedly grown up faster than the Disney studios would have liked, her offscreen escapades not quite so squeaky clean as Disney prefers. But the actress does as much as she can with her role in the movie, which isn't much more than playing second banana to a bug. Her costars fare no better, Michael Keaton and Brecklin Meyer given practically nothing to do. At least Justin Long gets a few reaction shots. The only actor who stands a chance of being remembered is Matt Dillon because his character is so deliciously, albeit stereotypically, evil.

Like any Disney family picture, expect this one to alternate between scenes of extreme absurdity and unabashed pathos. You see, the family fortune is on the line if Maggie's family racing team doesn't start winning races. Their team's sponsors are about to pull the plug, and the family needs a win badly, or it's off to selling cans of oil door to door. What's more, Maggie agrees to a pact with Trip, the result of which makes everybody mad at her. Each time the movie drops into one of these sentimental, over-the-top moments, the music gets all mushy and the action comes to a virtual standstill. Then, a climactic NASCAR race goes on seemingly forever to diminish our interest further.

Yet despite its many drawbacks, "Herbie: Fully Loaded" exudes an innocent charm and winds up being halfway cute. Herbie, for instance, falls in love with a VW New Beetle at about the same time that Maggie is falling for Kevin. How can you beat two sweet romances in the same kiddie fantasy?

I'm making a conjecture here: To me "Herbie" is an example of a studio producing an excellent transfer from a medicre-looking film print. (Or maybe it's a mediocre transfer of a excellent-looking film print. What do I know?) The screen size retains most of the film's 1.85:1 theatrical-release ratio; it's anamorphic, enhanced for widescreen TVs; and reproduced on disc at a high bit rate. Yet the picture comes out looking so bright, it's often glassy. In a few scenes, the color is positively wiped out by the bright glare. On the plus side, the definition is good, the depth of hues when not glossed over is pleasing; and grain is almost nonexistent.

At first I was unimpressed by the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics, which sounded a tad bright to my ears and appeared to put almost no material into the surrounds. But as the movie wore on, I noticed more and more information in the rear channels, things like car horns, squealing tires, and crowd noises. Then I began observing the bass and dynamic impact reinforcing key scenes and events. In the end, I was forced to realize that the sound was more subtle than I had thought, adding a fine ambiance to the music and effectively underlining pivotal action. The several well-known pop tunes used on the soundtrack come across efficiently as well.

The single disc comes with the usual complement of bonus materials. The first is the obligatory audio commentary, this one by director Angela Robinson. She explains that this was only her second picture, the first being "D.E.B.S." Her remarks are sprinkled with quite a few instances of "really" and "incredibly," but she seems refreshingly earnest and genuine enough.

In addition, there are about five minutes of bloopers, plus seven deleted scenes, including an alternate title opening, with optional director commentary. Then, there are three featurettes: "A Day at the Races," a thirteen-minute, behind-the-scenes promo about NASCAR racing; "Breaking the Rules: The Stunts from Herbie: Fully Loaded," a nine-minute, behind-the-scenes promo about doing the stunts for the movie; and "Bringing Herbie to Life," an eleven-minute, behind-the-scenes promo with the director and other filmmakers. In addition, there is a three-minute music video, "First," with Lindsay Lohan singing some god-awful music, redeemed only by shots of a 350Z in the background winning a race.

The extras conclude with twelve scene selections, and a chapter insert; and Sneak Peeks at six other Disney features: "Lady and the Tramp," "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Sky High," "Kronk's New Groove," "Antarctica: The Journey Home," and "Walt Disney World's Xtreme Stunt Show." The extras conclude with English, French, and Spanish spoken language options, plus French subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.

For an "extra" extra, see the DVD Town interview with director Angela Robinson.

Parting Shots:
The Wife-O-Meter got up and left the picture at about the halfway point; thus, the 5/10 rating below. She's usually right about these things, and I wish I had her by my side doing her body-language reviews more often. It would make my job a lot easier.

"Herbie: Fully Loaded" is frantic, zany, maudlin, dreary, and precious by turns. It's not so bad you want to throw rocks through the TV screen but not so good you want to brag about it to your friends. It is, in fact, exactly what we can count on from a Disney comedy these days--weightless, nonabrasive entertainment, appealing mainly to the youngest of children. Where's Dean Jones when you need him?


Film Value