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Dustin Putman

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Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005)
2 Stars

Directed by Angela Robinson
Cast: Lindsay Lohan, Justin Long, Michael Keaton, Matt Dillon, Breckin Meyer, Cheryl Hines, Jimmi Simpson, Thomas Lennon, Jill Ritchie, E.E. Bell, Patrick Cranshaw
2005 – 101 minutes
Rated: Rated G (nothing objectionable).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 19, 2005.

A remake-sequel-revitalization of the four-part Disney series that began with 1968's "The Love Bug" and ended with 1980's "Herbie Goes Bananas," "Herbie: Fully Loaded" isn't the cataclysmic disaster or laughing stock that the kitschy, over-the-top trailers and TV ads suggest. Let's face it: the world wasn't exactly tearing down the walls at the Buena Vista studios for the return of Herbie, the cinematic VW Beetle that happened to have a mind all its own, but now that it's here it is a perfectly acceptable (if far from perfectly perfect), warm-natured family film with well-choreographed action to spare, an unexpectedly potent soundtrack of classic rock tunes, and a valuable, non-preachy message. The moral—to follow your dreams and be yourself—is actually much more virtuously handled than in a lot of similar features because it does not at all hinge on the physical and the lead female character never once has to get a makeover and miraculously turn into a supermodel to feel better about herself.

Professional race car driving has been passed down from generation to generation in the Peyton family, and recent college graduate Maggie (Lindsay Lohan) is no exception in her passion for the sport. To appease father Ray Sr.'s (Michael Keaton) wishes—he refuses to put his youngest child (and only daughter) at any possible risk after the death of Maggie's mom—she has opted to pursue a career in journalism, even planning to move to Manhattan with friend Charisma (Jill Ritchie) in a month's time. Maggie's dream of being a NASCAR driver is suddenly reignited, however, when she finds that the worn-down VW Beetle her dad bought her as a graduation present is actually alive. At first helping her to beat oily professional racer Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) during a drag race, Herbie the Love Bug soon has aided in bringing Maggie together with old high school chum Kevin (Justin Long) and getting her to realize the talent and drive she has for racing. When a spot in the championship racing finals suddenly needs to be filled after Maggie's older brother, Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer), is in an accident that compromises his depth perception, Maggie and Herbie step in, much to the consternation of her father, pitting them bumper-to-bumper with reigning champion Trip.

Directed by Angela Robinson (2004's "D.E.B.S."), "Herbie: Fully Loaded" is zippy, brightly-colored fun. Seeming much shorter than its 100 minutes, the film flies right by at such a stylish clip that the viewer hardly has time to realize how very slight the whole thing is. The plot is an undemanding one, which is to be expected of a project out to attract a wide demographic of kids and older fans who remember the old "Herbie" series from their own childhoods. Luckily, one does not have to have seen the earlier installments to enjoy this newest one; the concept of Herbie is self-explanatory. What makes the film work as well as it does, even amidst a frothy narrative that strictly alternates between racing sequences, character-searching moments, and a slew of music montages, is that it never appears to be trying too hard. Director Angela Robinson avoids straining the film with too much juvenile humor and, save for the fantasy element of a rambunctious VW bug that happens to be alive, the story is rooted fairly closely in reality.

After star-making turns in 2003's "Freaky Friday" (a superior Disney remake) and 2004's sharp high school satire, "Mean Girls," Lindsay Lohan is above this material. Her Maggie is in almost every scene, to be sure, but it is a stock role, developed out of spare parts from other like-minded characters, that any young actress in Hollywood could have just as easily played. The one difference is that Lohan has genuine talent and depth as a performer, and so she tries with all her might to transcend the cliched level of writing she has to work with. Lohan's attempts may be in vain since "Herbie: Fully Loaded" will hardly figure in as a blip on her resumé in years to come, but she still makes the likable, headstrong Maggie her own. It is her personal journey and growth as she builds the courage to tackle her dreams and be accepted by her father that is at the heart of the picture. As for the title character, Herbie is cute and full of personality, especially for a car, but takes a back seat (no pun intended) to the human figures. The rest of the cast, including Michael Keaton (2005's "White Noise") as Maggie's caring father; Justin Long (2004's "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story"), who shares nice chemistry with Lohan as her mechanic friend and potential love interest; Breckin Meyer (2004's "Garfield: The Movie") as Maggie's car-racing brother; and an appreciably understated Matt Dillon (2005's "Crash") as crooked NASCAR opponent Trip Murphy, make the most out of limited screen time and development.

"Herbie: Fully Loaded" could be bashed for its sparse originality and stringent reliance on conventions (i.e. the dead/absent parent, the father who takes some time in coming around and supporting his daughter's dreams, the climactic big race), but why do that when the formula at least is injected with a sturdy helping of undeniable energy? Really, the movie is all about the car racing sequences, pulled off with aplomb and good visual effects, and a bubblegum tone that resembles the free-wheeling fun of 2000's "Charlie's Angels" and its lesser, but still solid, 2003 sequel, the similarly named "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." The above-average song selections from such classic artists as The Beach Boys, Pilot, Van Halen and Loverboy further help in immeasurably boosting each threadbare scene up a notch from tolerable to affably dynamic. "Herbie: Fully Loaded" won't stick around in the viewer's memory bank for long, but while it's there it is a disarmingly cheerful good time.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman