Herbie: Fully Loaded trots out the old VW bug that starred in a few dopey Disney comedies during the 60’s and 70’s. Why anyone thought it was time for Herbie to make a comeback is beyond me, but here he is. The movie begins with Herbie in a junkyard, having long been forgotten by the rest of the world. His luck changes when Maggie Payton (Lindsey Lohan) purchases him for $75. Maggie’s father is Ray Payton, Sr. (Michael Keaton), a former stock car racer-turned-team manager. His fortunes are fading because his driver, Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer), keeps crashing into walls. Consequently, races are being lost and companies are pulling their sponsorship.
Maggie quickly discovers that Herbie essentially drives himself, even when she’s behind the wheel. After a chance encounter with narcissistic NASCAR champ Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon), Maggie puts on a helmet to disguise her identity and challenges Murphy to a race. (Well, actually Herbie does the challenging, but it’s too complicated to explain.) Through his gravity-defying antics – and despite Murphy’s attempts to cheat - Herbie wins. The humiliated Murphy plans revenge via a highly-publicized rematch. After discovering that Maggie was behind the wheel, he proposes to race for pink slips so that if he wins (which he intends to) he can destroy Herbie once and for all.
There’s also an additional subplot about Maggie’s desire to drive Herbie in a NASCAR race instead of going to college. Ray doesn’t want her getting involved in the sport because she once had an accident during an illegal street race. We’re told several times that Maggie was previously one of the best street racers around. She has an obligatory romance with a young mechanic named Kevin, played by Dodgeball star Justin Long. At one point, Maggie tells Kevin that her racing glory was “a long time ago.” Considering that she attends her high school graduation in the opening scene (which would make her about 18), that would mean that she was a racing champ at best around the time she first got her driver’s license, right?
The (limited) appeal of the Herbie movies was seeing the car display its personality by doing all kinds of impossible tricks. In Herbie: Fully Loaded, the VW shoots his enemies in the face with motor oil, hits them in the head with his trunk, and flings hubcaps at them. He’s like Moe from the Three Stooges reincarnated as a Volkswagen. Surprisingly cheap special effects are used to give Herbie “facial expressions.” In other words, his headlights act like eyes while his front bumper smiles or frowns like a mouth. He also falls in love with a shiny new VW bug owned by Ray Sr.’s girlfriend. This is about as witty as the film gets.
Young kids (say, 8 and below) may be amused by Herbie’s behavior, but they might be confused as well. No explanation is given for Herbie’s powers, other than a note in the glove compartment that states that he can make wishes come true. For a magic car, Herbie seems to have a lot of animosity for people, which makes me wonder if he’s related to the car from Stephen King’s “Christine.”
I had some problems with the performances in this film. Michael Keaton plays the same kind of overprotective father that he played in First Daughter. He does it well, but this kind of thankless role is beneath him. Keaton’s appeal comes from his edginess, not his cuddliness. The same is true for Matt Dillon as Trip Murphy. Again, Dillon is serviceable in the role, but after seeing him deliver a superior performance recently in Crash, this is a letdown. He should be devoting his considerable talents to better projects.
As for Lindsey Lohan…well, I don’t like to drag personal things into a review but it’s getting harder to buy her in these wide-eyed innocent roles. Too much has been written about her alleged hard-partying ways, which now makes her a poor fit for a Disney family movie. Even leaving that aside, she too is capable of much better work. In last year’s wonderfully wicked Mean Girls, Lohan proved herself to be far more talented than her contemporaries, like Hilary Duff or the Olsen twins. She needs to take more material in that vein. She’s growing up and her career choices should reflect that.
Herbie: Fully Loaded isn’t an awful family film. I’ve definitely sat through more painful movies. It’s more boring than anything. Despite all the racing footage it contains, the movie drags considerably, which makes the flaws I mentioned stand out even more. Director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) needed to pick up the pace. Then again, Robinson was stuck making a movie about a VW bug with human characteristics. It’s not much to work with, is it?
( out of four)
Herbie: Fully Loaded is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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