The concept behind "Herbie: Fully Loaded" is so venerable it's not only older than its intended audience, it may even be older than some of their parents.
The Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own and a weakness for speed debuted in 1969's "The Love Bug" and proved popular enough to dragoon the widest possible range of actors — from Don Knotts to Helen Hayes — into a series of theatrical and TV sequels.
Now the only car that ever needed an exorcist is back in business with its rambunctious spirit remarkably intact. "Herbie: Fully Loaded" is that modern rarity, a genial, sweet-natured family film, G-rated and proud of it, an old-fashioned Disney movie to the core.
How rare it is to see a film, even one intended for kids, without scatological references. A film where only a single chaste romantic kiss is allowed, and that at the close. A film where everyone, even the dastardly villain, studiously ignores how alluring star Lindsay Lohan looks in a series of snug T-shirts and short skirts.
Directed by Angela Robinson, who debuted with "D.E.B.S.," and written by the inevitable posse of comedy scribes (four did the screenplay, three get story credit, all based on characters created by someone else), "Herbie" is made by people who understand playful. It may be by-the-numbers, but it knows that under the right circumstances those numbers can lead to a fair amount of fun.
The amusement starts during the credits, when a series of newspaper clips displays a version of the life Herbie's been leading — running with the bulls at Pamplona, starring in something called "Beach Bugs," hanging out with the talking car from TV's "Knight Rider" — since last our path crossed his.
Now Herbie finds himself in a junkyard, Crazy Dave's Scrap and Salvage to be specific, where the motto is "We put the cash into crash." Who knows what horrors would have awaited him if newly minted college graduate Maggie Peyton (Lohan) hadn't stopped by to purchase a used car.
Maggie is the most skilled member of the legendary Peyton racing clan, but her father Ray Sr. (an underutilized Michael Keaton) prefers that her brother (Breckin Meyer) do the competitive driving even though the team is losing sponsors faster than Ray Sr. is losing hair.
One thing definitely leads to another once the headstrong Herbie ("I'm being carjacked by my own car," Maggie complains) takes charge.
Soon Maggie has reacquainted herself with handsome young mechanic Kevin (Justin Long), and she's locking horns — and wheels — with the Mephistophelean NASCAR champion Trip Murphy, nicely played by Matt Dillon, who manages to bring real verve to lines like "I'm gonna exterminate that bug."
In addition to being well cast (by Rick Montgomery) with comic professionals who know their business, "Herbie" gets its money's worth out of the 36 different vintage bugs used in filming.
While some racing situations are too obviously computer generated, these cars, the press notes tell us, have been effectively "refashioned to operate as giant robotic puppets" as they convincingly deliver Herbie's emotional reaction to a variety of situations.
Even with all of this, "Herbie: Fully Loaded" wouldn't function well without Lohan's presence. The part doesn't require great acting, but absent its star's easy and appealing manner (reminiscent of her fine work in 1998's "The Parent Trap") the rest wouldn't be as effective as it is. True, there are moments when Lohan looks surprisingly weary on screen for an 18-year-old, bringing her much-publicized troubles with overzealous paparazzi to mind, but when you've got Herbie in your corner nothing else, finally, matters. At least for now.
'Herbie: Fully Loaded'
MPAA rating: G
Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Angela Robinson. Producer Robert Simonds.
Screenplay Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant and Alfred Gough & Miles Millar. Story by Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant and Mark Perez, based on characters created by Gordon Buford. Cinematographer Greg Gardiner. Costumes Frank Helmer. Music Mark Mothersbaugh. Production design Daniel Bradford. Art director David S. Lazan.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
In general release.