On reading the script for Herbie: Fully Loaded, says director Angela Robinson, “My basic take on the movie was Seabiscuit with a car.” Not a terrible idea. Indeed, Robinson’s entire commentary for Buena Vista’s DVD is personable and clever, demonstrating that she brought to this franchise project more ingenuity and detail than you might expect. For one thing, she’s actually quite thrilled with the legacy left her by the old Herbie movies, and carefully integrates their light tone and general silliness into the update, namely, Herbie goes NASCAR.
Throughout her commentary — which is accompanied o the DVD by bloopers, best-left-deleted scenes, “A Day At the Races” (a promo piece featuring NASCAR driver Deborah Renshaw), “Breaking the Rules: The Stunts of Herbie,” “Bringing Herbie to Life,” Lindsay Lohan’s video for “First” — Robinson extols the considerable virtues of mixing old-school Herbiness and newfangled tech and context. In the first junkyard scene, where the old Herbie has been abandoned, she calls the actors — tow-truck driver E.E. Bell as a tow-truck driver and Jeremy Roberts (whom Robinson misidentifies as Jeremy Northam) — “awesome,” as they evoke a ’60s-ish broad expressiveness with their wide faces and cartoonish gestures. This makes sense in the milieu Robinson sets for them: they’re acting here with a car, after all (she notes they used 37 in all, some animatronic, like the one in this scene).
Robinson is right about the appeal of the throwback vibe. This is what makes the film fun, especially for kids (despite the fact that for some viewers, it will call to mind recent incidents and jokes regarding Lohan’s driving). As Robinson notes, some of their stunts are goony in an especially old-fashioned way (watch for the hand that toss a hubcap from Herbie to Dave’s head, which she says she left in despite CGI crew offers to erase it, for Herbie fans, so they have “something to look for that’s fun.”
Herbie’s rescue from the junkyard by aspiring racer Maggie Peyton (Lohan) is premised on his obsolescence. A new college grad, Maggie is already bristling under pressure by her NASCAR star father, Ray (Michael Keaton, “fascinating to work with,” Robinson says, “because he’s so precise as an actor”), who wants her to head off to NYC for the glitzy ESPN job she’s secured (at least partly on the basis of his name). But Maggie wants to drive racecars, despite her father’s resistance (following a years-ago street racing accident in which she totaled her car). He thinks she looks like her dead mother; he doesn’t want to risk losing her, and yes, this is all sounding a lot like the plot of Racing Stripes, only with cars instead of farm animals and a zebra. At any rate, Maggie’s brother Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer) is the family’s designated professional driver, even though he doesn’t even want to continue the Peyton legacy (granddad was a champion as well). Ray Jr. is losing, Ray Sr. is losing endorsements, and Sally (Cheryl Hines), the team’s apparent endorsement
Maggie’s graduation present throws a wrench in everyone’s plans. When she and Ray visit the junkyard, she’s spotted by Herbie, a 1963 Beetle with metal flaps on his headlights and a flexible bumper that grant him “expressions” (in 1968, this technology seemed new, now, it’s just not). Herbie’s point of view shots of Maggie (Robinson calls it Herbievision) seem vaguely lascivious, but perhaps this is just a function of the “personality” he goes on to display so rambunctiously. He picks out Maggie, it appears, because Herbie wants to race. With Maggie at the wheel but not exactly steering, Herbie wangles his way into a street race with egotistical NASCAR superstar Trip (an appropriately hammy Matt Dillon), which he wins against considerable odds (Trip drives a tricked-out racecar, even on the street).
Embarrassed by the loss, Trip sets up a rematch, for which Maggie and her mechanic Kevin (Justin Long) rebuild Herbie. Their prep means she has to lie to Ray, who still hopes that Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer), who doesn’t like racing, will continue the family’s legacy. Thus, multiple tensions are set: Maggie and Herbie vs. Trip, Maggie vs. her dad, Ray Jr. vs. Ray Sr., and Ray Sr. against the clock, as his sponsors are pulling out because his team is not winning. Trip’s eventual efforts to undermine Herbie lead to the very depressed and abandoned-felling bug’s engagement in a demolition derby where he’s smashed up by a monster truck before Maggie shows up to inspire him (“You can do it, Herbie!”).
Herbie’s resurrection makes these various situations seem also like “drag” scenarios (Street Racer Herbie, Demolition Derby Herbie, and eventually, NASCAR Herbie). While the movie focuses on the Maggie-Herbie relationship (Robinson says, “She felt like she connected with this car and was able to do unbelievable things when they were working together”), each is also assigned a species-appropriate partner too: she likes Kevin; he likes a yellow bug driven by Sally (who is, in turn, Ray Sr.’s object), an attraction signaled by an erect antenna. Still, as Maggie notices early on, this yellow number seems “too young” for Herbie.
But for all this pretense toward plot, Herbie‘s point is NASCAR and commercial tie-ins, including prominent logos during race scenes (Cheetos, Home Depot, Netzero, Tropicana), and human product placement (pro drivers like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson). While Robinson clearly celebrates the relationship between Maggie and Herbie, particularly as they oppose and defeat the villain Trip, she also says the movie shows the “scope and the joy of being a contender, more than winning, necessarily.” That Herbie allows this “scope and joy” for a girl driver is mostly delightful. It’s also trite. He’s a metaphor, after all, a means to make the point that girls can drive, and especially, should be able to if they want to pursue it. That the movie is in the end about “winning, necessarily,” makes it a movie that’s more typical than not.