Souping up Herbie’s antics seemed inevitable for Herbie: Fully Loaded, an attempted revival of the Disney film series. But too-flashy computer effects diminish the beloved Bug’s kitschy cuteness and energy.
For all the flash that software programming can get you these days, nothing beats the old-school sight of a split-in-half Herbie placing first and third in a race. A snippet of that scene in an opening-credit montage is more exciting than any of Herbie’s newfound trickery. And the big moment of the film’s climactic NASCAR race already has been spoiled in every trailer or commercial.
It’s the big-studio debut of director Angela Robinson, who made her name on Showtime’s The L Word as well as last year’s action-comedy DEBS. The screenplay by committee, typical of such outings, comes from two duos — Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (best known for Reno 911!) and Miles Millar and Alfred Gough (who brought us the, uh, Shanghai Noon franchise).
Lindsay Lohan, so openly charismatic and effectively comedic in Mean Girls and Freaky Friday (2003) is but a franchise pawn here. Herbie needs no driver to get where he needs to go, and the actress is on similar autopilot playing the major human in the Volkswagen Beetle’s life.
She’s Maggie Peyton, a college graduate destined for a bummer summer before leaving for an ESPN job. Her home life is a downer, especially with NASCAR crew chief dad Ray (Michael Keaton) and wretched racer brother Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer) at the end of their sponsorship rope.
As a graduation present, Ray gives Maggie the money to buy Herbie, well past his glory days and rusting in a junkyard. In one of the movie’s rare humorous touches, Herbie commits import-on-import violence on a Nissan to ensure he goes home with Maggie.
Soon enough, Maggie learns Herbie can drive himself (or as the script so leadenly puts it for her, “I’ve learned to embrace the mystery that is Herbie”) with excessive handling and speed. To save her family’s racing reputation and fortunes, she conceals her identity from nervous-dad Ray and pits Herbie against egotistical racing-cup champion Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon).
There are brief flashes of the elation of gender-based racing history a la Danica Patrick and one very funny spoof of Mad Max in an automotive Thunderdome. Plus, this cast, though thoroughly wasted, escapes this G-rated goofiness with its dignity.
But with VW’s novelty as a car gone, the movie partially becomes grand-scale product placement. Look at all the insignias, that Touareg and real-life NASCAR drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. Plus, for all the talk of racing being in Maggie’s blood, well, she just kind of sits there while Herbie does his thing. A last-minute plot point suggests she might actually have to drive Herbie, but no. The easily predicted moment of glory comes not from a lesson learned on the track, but a special effect.
The freshly tricked-out car is the star of Herbie: Fully Loaded but it’s at the expense of any reliably positive message, charm or whimsy.