Extended Thoughts on ‘Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo’
Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo
Directed by Vincent McEveety
Written by Arthur Alsberg and Don Nelson
Starring Dean Jones, Don Knotts, Julie Sommars
The foundation of any solid relationship is communication. Two people may look like they should fit—they have the same interests, the same friends, they’re both good-looking, and so on—but if they can’t communicate with each other, the relationship is dead before it lifts off the ground. In any form of entertainment or media, it’s up to the author or authors to make an audience care about a relationship in whatever story they tell, whether it’s a successful or unsuccessful relationship. We need to care and be invested in these characters either becoming a couple or breaking away from each other, but we can’t just do that automatically. It’s up to the people behind that story to make us care. Even if we begin watching a movie or TV show, or reading a book, based on the people who made it, there must be some engagement with what’s on the screen or the page.
I’ve brought up the idea recently about not being engaged in a central romantic relationship in a movie, and how that spells trouble. Lady and the Tramp has many positive elements, but I couldn’t get behind the romance the title characters have, and thus, couldn’t really get into the film as a whole. The battle there is, ironically enough, not too challenging. There are few sentient humans who don’t have the capacity to melt when they see cute dogs, and even fewer who wouldn’t melt at cute dogs being cute with each other. The visual element is enough to break your heart, but once those dogs started talking, I lost all interest in their relationship.
A true uphill battle comes when communication is more difficult, not just for those involved in the relationship, but for those of us watching the relationship unfold. Because most of us don’t watch silent movies primarily, we’re used to dialogue driving interactions between characters, but going against that seemingly basic principle can throw us for a loop. One of the most difficult relationships to create in modern cinema, but one that pays off beautifully, is between WALL-E and Eve, the two robots in the Pixar classic from 2008, WALL-E. Here, we have two non-human characters, but unlike Lady and the Tramp, there’s no English language being spoken here. There is a more universal language at play, but even still, director and co-writer Andrew Stanton has to teach us how to understand WALL-E and Eve. Outside of them saying their names to each other and other characters, we can only assume we know what they’re saying through the sound effects created by Ben Burtt.
We care about WALL-E and Eve (or at least, I sure do). I still am boggled that the movie works as well as it does, let alone the central romance. If someone told you a movie with two robots who don’t speak English, or any discernible human language, and fall in love with each other would be one of the best films of its year, you’d say they were crazy. And why not? The concept doesn’t sound like it can work. What Stanton and the crew at Pixar Animation Studios were able to do with WALL-E is personify robots as we personify anything in life, from our cars to our appliances to our pets, but moving beyond a surface-level depiction of that personification.
And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking what my esteemed co-host, Michael Ryan, was saying during this week’s podcast. How dare I compare the astronomical heights of WALL-E to something far less ambitious, something like 1977’s Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo? Certainly, the relationship between Herbie, the Volkswagen with a mind of its own, and Gisele, a flashy Lancia race car that Herbie encounters during the Trans-France race from Paris to Monte Carlo, isn’t trying to be as remotely powerful and moving as that of WALL-E and Eve. But let me pose this counterargument: why weren’t the people behind Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo aiming for the moon? The more I think about watching older Disney movies, the more disappointed I get at the heaping amounts of potential that are wasted by people who aren’t interested in making the best possible film.
I am not naïve, either: I know that the Walt Disney Company is a business first. They get lucky if they make quality films, not just films that make money. Whether in the world of live-action or animation, any movie getting made is nearly impossible, and any good movie getting made is even harder. The lack of any effort, though, is what troubles me. If you aim for the moon and miss, you can take heart in knowing that you tried for the very best. If you don’t aim at all, but succeed at making money, you’ve failed me as an audience member even while pleasing the shareholders. As a concept, having two cars get involved in a romantic relationship is both inherently silly and creatively challenging. Once you accept that the cars are going to get involved, and do so without speaking or making any noise that you wouldn’t normally hear from a car, the question becomes: why do we care?
What’s most fascinating is that this relationship isn’t as crazy as it might sound. Like I said, we give human qualities to non-human things all the time. Though I don’t do it, I’ve heard of people who name their cars. Why name a car? That brings us closer to the inanimate object, something we give life to begin with by driving it around. Putting two cars together may be a bit…odd—how would they ever procreate?—but it can work with the right type of writing and directing and acting. But what we’re given in Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo is something as effort-free as you might imagine with a main romance as ridiculous as this one. Though it dominates much of the movie, most of the gags here never go above something basic, from Herbie cleaning himself off to be presentable to tossing flowers to Gisele to clanking doors as an equivalent of holding hands.
I know I sound like I’m asking too much from this movie, but why don’t we ask more of the movies we watch? Even if I’m not watching this in the theaters, I am paying to see it as part of my overall Netflix subscription. And even if I’m renting it from the library, I am paying to see this movie by giving it my time. I have such high expectations not because I expect more from the Herbie series—I’ve been, at best, lukewarm on any of the movies, and being fair, this is not as bad as Herbie Rides Again—but because I have high expectations for Disney films in general. The reason why I do this podcast is not because I needed to talk to someone about the movies I watch—OK, it’s the not the only reason why. It’s because I love the very best of Walt Disney Pictures’ films. I know that loving the very best means I have to accept the opposite, but that doesn’t mean I can’t bemoan the missed opportunities.
Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo is a big, fat missed opportunity. Bringing back Dean Jones to the series after the second film in the franchise? Great idea. Saddling him with a wardrobe that’s closer to the Festrunk Brothers from Saturday Night Live than what an actual person wears, as well as a dull romance? Bad idea. Casting Don Knotts as Jim Douglas’ new riding mechanic? Great idea. Knotts is tailor-made for Disney live-action films and was in the middle of a glut of such movies for the studio. Stranding him with random gags such as yodeling to unleash rocks from a cliff? Bad—and weird—idea. A feminist racecar driver? Fitting for the time period and somewhat progressive. Making that driver shrill to the point that the male characters consider her perceived strength a legitimately negative aspect? Bad, bad idea.
What we have here is a case of a concept not being executed well. The whole of Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo is executed poorly, relative to great live-action filmmaking from Walt Disney Pictures. Though the film isn’t overstuffed, it features one subplot too many as a pair of bumbling jewel thieves try to get a diamond out of Herbie’s gas tank. There’s already a natural antagonist in the film in the form of Bruno von Stickle, a fellow driver in the Trans-France Race. That’s how you create a face-off or a threat in your movie. Bumbling jewel thieves is a waste of everyone’s time. None of these movies, whether they’re treated as if they’re part of a larger franchise or as separate one-offs, should be a waste of anyone’s time. Yet, here we are with Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. I’d like to say I had more hope for the next two films in the series, but I’d be lying.