- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Herbie: Fully Loaded,” opening today in movie theaters, sounds a bit unsavory — as if the Disney studio decided to get its irrepressible automotive prop, a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, back on the cinematic road in a drunken stupor.

The prospect of a belated sequel (there were four earlier Herbie farces, beginning with “The Love Bug” in 1969) has brought out an exuberant, playful-as-a-pup enthusiasm in director Angela Robinson and her colleagues, who seem so intoxicated by this hand-me-down project that they may succeed in rejuvenating the franchise for Disney loyalists.

In a witty main-title sequence, the filmmakers trace the legend of Herbie over 35 years of bogus newspaper headlines, photos and squibs. An arc from fame to failure to oblivion serves their purposes, although it’s a bit harsh on the fictional human sidekicks invented for previous movies.

Didn’t anyone care enough to preserve Herbie from the junkyard? Evidently not, because that’s where he’s found by a new owner, Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan), a recent college grad who’s looking for a cheap, expendable vehicle before she moves from Los Angeles to New York to work as a TV production assistant. A reanimated Herbie chooses her while she’s inspecting other discards.

Presumably, Herbie has intuited Maggie’s bloodline (she belongs to the youngest generation in a proud NASCAR clan) and untapped potential as a driver. In no time at all, the crafty little car masterminds a reunion with a former high school classmate, Kevin (played by Justin Long), a longtime friend who proves a two-for-one bargain as mechanic and sweetheart.

For his next Machiavellian brainstorm, Herbie bullies Maggie into a rivalry with an arrogant and lecherous pro named Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon’s return as a comic heavy), humiliated by an impromptu street race in which the Beetle resorts to blatant supernatural stunts.

Resistance to Herbie’s will is pretty much futile, so Maggie rides the whirlwind and eventually enjoys the support of her dad, Ray (Michael Keaton), and older brother, Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer), in a NASCAR debut that turns her into an overnight anticipation of Danica Patrick.

As a matter of fact, the movie is so blissfully domiciled with the NASCAR circuit and its celebrities that the plot probably would have needed serious tinkering if contrived after Miss Patrick’s recent performance at the Indy 500. There are bit appearances by drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jarrett, Tony Stewart and others, plus a warm embrace of NASCAR insignia and advertising logos.

Miss Lohan continues to be a radiant lucky charm for Disney updates: “The Parent Trap,” “Freaky Friday” and now a retread of “The Love Bug.” Fortunately, her screen presence remains fresh, unguarded and spontaneous despite advancing age (18) and intrusive notoriety. It’s a wonder she can defy the teen-vixen emphasis that clings to most of the tabloid and fan magazine coverage she attracts.

As for the film’s other stars, Mr. Keaton polishes a middle-age flair for playing movie dads, but here he’s a straight man rather than a comic resource. Like Bruce Greenwood in “Racing Stripes,” he firms up a family-solidarity theme: Sincerely protective fathers are character-builders rather than obstacles to daughters with unorthodox athletic aspirations and strong wills of their own.

Mr. Dillon is effective as the overconfident, sneaky Trip. He’s entrusted with slow burns and fits of rage when outsmarted or roughed up by Herbie, who treats him as a punching bag. Youngsters should relish the way he takes his lumps.

***

TITLE: “Herbie: Fully Loaded”

RATING: G (Fleeting comic vulgarity and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Angela Robinson. Screenplay by Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant and Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. Cinematography by Greg Gardiner. Production design by Daniel Bradford. Costume design by Frank Helmer. Car coordinator: Randy White. Stunt coordinator: Andy Gill. Special-effects supervisor: Matt Sweeney. Music by Mark Mothersbaugh.

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

WEB SITE: www.Herbie movie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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