Extended Thoughts on ‘Herbie Goes Bananas’

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Herbie Goes Bananas
Directed by Vincent McEveety
Written by Gordon Buford and Don Tait
USA, 1980

I cannot believe that a movie as wrongheaded and idiotic as Herbie Goes Bananas exists. Herbie Goes Bananas is so bad, it makes Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo look like the combined 1940s output of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (better known as The Archers), from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to The Small Back Room. In fact, I’m insulting The Archers’ films by even including them in the same sentence as anything pertaining to Herbie Goes Bananas. I could, frankly, spend this entire column cataloguing the many things in the world that are more enjoyable, funny, exciting, and lively than Herbie Goes Bananas. But while it’d be fun…well, I’m not sure how to finish that sentence. Let’s just assume the alternate-universe column where I tell you exactly how much in life is better than the 100 minutes of this film exists, and is great, but isn’t the same kind of great that this column is.

Herbie Goes Bananas is one of the more baffling live-action films I’ve seen for the podcast. Though I’m certainly no fan of the preceding films in the franchise, I am astounded at how badly this movie falls down. Just like the second film, Herbie Rides Again, this abandons any reference to the previous films. We get a very quick, casually tossed off reference from one of the lead characters to Jim Douglas in the opening, but otherwise, the only connective thread is Herbie himself, who is strangely marginalized and never feels like an active character (at least, as active as a car with a mind of its own can be). What’s worse, his personality is more infantilized than in previous films and feels a lot less fully formed. Herbie mostly exists in this film as a pale shadow of what he was before.

We get essentially two stories smushed into one. In the first, Pete (who got Herbie as a present from Jim, who happens to be the kid’s uncle, because otherwise Disney would have to pay Dean Jones more money to appear in a sequel, and we can’t have that) and his mechanic buddy, DJ, get into some wacky adventures with Herbie on the way to a Grand Prix-style race in Brazil, mostly on a cruise ship. On this ship, Pete and DJ meet Melissa, a grad student who we know is dorky because she has oversized glasses and puts her hair up in a bun. (Will Melissa literally let her hair down and turn out to be quite beautiful? I’m not telling!!!) They also meet Melissa’s horny and nosy aunt, Melissa, and the ship’s outrageously uptight captain. These two characters are played by Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman. They should be a sight for sore eyes, as long as you’re familiar with their work in the Mel Brooks comedies of the 1970s. Instead, they will help make your eyes so sore, they’ll bleed for hours.

Here’s the thing: I had heard bad things about this movie. I had heard from Michael and from others who like the Herbie films that this is the weakest in the series. My hopes weren’t high to begin with, but when I saw that Leachman and Korman were involved, I literally thought to myself, “Hey, how bad can this be, if they’re in the film?” It is, suffice to say, a cliché to ask a question like “How bad can it be?” without then assuming the absolute worst is the answer. And that’s what I got with Herbie Goes Bananas: the absolute worst. Assuming that Leachman and Korman would, simply by their presence, make this film at least tolerable was insane on my part. I look back on the time of my life when I thought these foolish things, and I laugh at my naiveté. What childishness! What immaturity!

The second half of the film—because, yeah, we haven’t even gotten to the meat of this stupid movie—occurs once our characters leave the ship. Then, they get in a wild chase surrounding an Incan disc made of pure gold! It’s sought after by Moe Greene from The Godfather and Dean Wormer from National Lampoon’s Animal House! Did I also mention that in the midst of acquiring this disc, the bad guys, as well as Herbie plus some human passengers, get stuck in a bullfight? Did I mention that Herbie becomes a matador? Did I mention the number of times I contemplated breaking my television into a million tiny pieces while watching this film? So far, if you haven’t seen Herbie Goes Bananas (and please, count your blessings), the various plot machinations I’m bringing up may seem disparate and nearly non sequiturs. I don’t blame you for this confusion, but that’s because I’ve saved the lightning rod of this inane and idiotic plot for last: Paco.

Oh, Paco, you laughably half-assed scamp. You “lovable” pickpocket. Paco the pickpocket! Do you think that’s why the writers of the film made the character a pickpocket? Because it would provide us all with a tongue twister that is more entertaining than a single second of this film? (Seriously, pick any second you like, it’s less entertaining than saying “Paco the pickpocket” ten times fast. Go, try it. I’ll wait. You done? Good, let’s continue.) Pete and DJ meet Paco almost immediately. In fact, they meet him before they meet Herbie, when he steals their wallets. Then, he steals the wallet of one of Dean Wormer’s associates. If there’s one thing the filmmakers want you to glean from Paco, it’s that he really loves stealing wallets. Paco manages to make friends with Herbie, once the car allows him to evade capture by hiding in his trunk. From that point on, Paco and Herbie are thick as thieves, getting into wacky trouble on the cruise ship, culminating in a) them inadvertently destroying a costume party and b) Korman ordering Herbie thrown off the ship and sunk at sea.

It’s at this point that I must remind you something very important: you are not hallucinating. Well, let’s amend that: if you are, so am I. Because I am confident that yes, in a Disney movie, we saw a supposedly lovable character, the only familiar element in this series, GET THROWN OFF A SHIP TO DIE. Let’s also clarify that the person who makes this call is not the bad guy of the movie. In the first half, Korman’s captain is something of an antagonist, but as soon as he hits dry land, he’s on the side of good. Let’s not wonder how the hell Herbie survives a plunge to the briny depths of the sea. Frankly, for everyone’s well-being, focusing on much of this film’s plot and how little sense any of it makes is probably a bad idea. The film’s writers certainly didn’t, thinking only of what weird sight gags they could come up with to make kids laugh.

Once everyone gets off the cruise ship, it’s up to Herbie to foil Moe Greene and Dean Wormer. And, as mentioned above, he also gets to be a matador. Maybe the best part about the bullfight sequence—I know, how can I choose when I’ve been given such a packed bit of filmmaking, right?—is that the Netflix envelope for the film describes Herbie facing down a “raging bull.” Fun fact: Herbie Goes Bananas opened in 1980, the same year as Raging Bull. Yes, Raging Bull. You cannot tell me the phrasing on the Netflix envelope is a coincidence. (Even if it’s true, just try it. See, you’re trying to tell me right now, but there’s no sound coming out of your mouth!) The actual scene is jaw-droppingly ridiculous. If ever there was a semblance of sanity in the human characters in this franchise, that semblance vanished forever during this scene. I get that the franchise is centered around a ridiculous idea—hey, the car has a mind of its own—but there is a way to ground us in the fantastical reality that’s created from that idea.

What we get here is a child character who happily urges Herbie to get the crap beaten out of him by a LIVE BULL. This is but one example of the sheer craziness on display in Herbie Goes Bananas, a movie whose interests baffle me to no end. The film all but ignores Herbie as an active character, it doesn’t introduce us to fascinating enough protagonists or antagonists, and it doesn’t really give us memorable—in the right way, mind you—sequences or gags. I wouldn’t actually accuse the filmmakers of having done drugs, but I’m trying very hard and failing at rationalizing the choices they made here. The last choice, the last decision I’ll live you with, the one that will haunt me for the rest of my days is courtesy of songwriter Frank De Vol. He writes two songs that appear in the film, one of which plays as Paco and Herbie bond as best buddies. (Let’s not figure out exactly how a car becomes pals with a kid, because that’s a road with a dark, dark ending.) As they bond, we hear kids singing about friendship, culminating in this lyric: “I’ll bet you a banana, manana, you’ll have a friend.” I’ll bet you a banana you’ll never figure out what the hell that, or this movie, means.

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