Herbie Rides Again
Directed by Robert Stevenson
Written by Bill Walsh
Starring Ken Berry, Stefanie Powers, Helen Hayes, Keenan Wynn
Sometimes, I wonder why studios spend money on certain projects. OK, scratch that, I wonder this all of the time, not some of the time. Why spend money on this reboot or that remake or these sequels? Sure, a movie makes money and studios want to replicate that success until the end of time. But still, the money that studios spend—presumably precious—is often spent in unfortunate and baffling ways. What’s more, once a movie gets greenlit, the way its budget is used is even more troubling. Saying this about movies coming out in 2012 isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but I’m surprised that the practice extends as far back as 1974. Call me naïve, but the way Hollywood spends money like it’s going out of business will never not be confusing.
Take Herbie Rides Again, for example. (No, please. Take it. I’m begging you.) This is a movie that follows up an enormously successful beginning to a Disney live-action franchise. I’m not too familiar with its pre-production phase, or how long it took for Disney executives to finally greenlight what must have been an inevitable sequel to 1968’s The Love Bug. One must imagine, though, that the Disney executives were forced to start from scratch, scrapping the main cast from the original film and going back to the drawing board. Either that, or they had no fundamental awareness of what people liked about The Love Bug. You like racing scenes? Gone. You like Dean Jones? Not here. You like Buddy Hackett? Flew the coop to Tibet.
No, instead, Herbie Rides Again features Herbie, the enchanted Volkswagen Bug, interacting with a whole new group of people who are not nearly as fascinating, as hard as they try. You know what’s worse? That this story incorporates so many special effects and doesn’t have the money to make those effects look special. I mentioned this on the show, but I can’t help but rant about it again here, so I’m going to let ‘er rip: there are two separate scenes in this film set in a restaurant by the San Francisco harbor. So far, so good. Both scenes have two characters, Nicole and Willoughby (Stefanie Powers and Ken Berry, the replacements for Michele Lee and Dean Jones), eating dinner. And both scenes are inexplicably shot in front of a greenscreen.
Why is this scene shot in front of a greenscreen? There is literally no reason for it. Now, don’t get me wrong: I know that plenty of movies shoot otherwise ordinary scenes in front of greenscreens, for one reason or another. Maybe the director absolutely, positively has to get a shot with the harbor in the background because that’s just a thing in his movies. Maybe it’s the actor who wants the shot with the harbor. But I know that these pointless special-effects shots exist. I don’t get why they exist, and I certainly don’t get it in context of this movie, and these two shots. Herbie Rides Again is a movie with plenty of other special-effects shots, but the others make sense, at least in terms of why they have to be special-effects shots.
But here’s the thing: the people behind this movie should’ve put their special-effects budget to better use. Whatever pittance was used to make the San Francisco harbor come alive behind Ken Berry and Stefanie Powers was not worth it. Put that money to use on the equally laughable—if not more so—shots of Herbie driving up the suspension beams of the Golden Gate Bridge. And unlike my co-host, Michael Ryan, greenscreen effects distract me as a viewer. I realize that technology in 1974 was a lot more lo-fi than it is now, but if I’m focusing on the greenscreen effects, that means the movie around those effects isn’t wowing me, and that’s unfortunately the case with Herbie Rides Again.
Even after discussing it with Michael, I’m left cold by the film. At best, I see it as a baffling entry in the live-action canon. Nowhere else can you find a man plagued by nightmares wherein one Volkswagen Bug is multiplied into hundreds of man-eating vehicular beasts. Nowhere else can you see a car drive up the suspension beams of the Golden Gate Bridge and chase down a gaggle of elderly lawyers down. However, while those may be singular events in the world and history of cinema, the question becomes not “What kind of weird stuff happens in this movie?”, but “Do I want to watch the weird stuff in this movie?” The experience of watching this movie is singular, no matter where or how you’re watching it. But I don’t know that it’s an experience I want to repeat.
Making sequels can be a very tricky business, especially sequels to movies whose most identifying characteristics, what audiences love most about them, aren’t people. Yes, having Dean Jones and Buddy Hackett in the movie would’ve made people happy, but if you’d kept them and kicked Herbie to the curb, there would be a public outcry. But Herbie not racing is almost as bad as no Herbie, I think. There’s a completely misguided montage in the first 30 minutes of the movie—which is baffling in a different way than the final hour, in that it’s frustrating where the rest is batty and silly—that has Herbie fantasizing about the glory days when Jim Douglas would drive him around in races and they were winners. This montage is overlong, in that it exists at all. Why remind me of the first movie in the series and what I like about it so much if you’re not going to include more racing? Making Herbie long to race again is fine, as long as he actually, you know, races again.
No racing is in this movie. Not a single racing sequence. Why show me that montage? Well, the Disney folks probably assumed that kids would get restless if there was no action in the first 30 minutes, and they were right. I was restless even with the montage, which just serves as a poke in the eye for wanting the sequel to exist at all. The rest of the opening 30 minutes is spent on introducing all of the new characters—or, in the case of the villain, Alonzo Hawk, a holdover from other Disney live-action films, new to the Herbie series—and on establishing why none of the old ones are returning. At best, it’s throat-clearing, but at worst, it’s borderline obnoxious.
The rest of the film is equally messy, but in a less grating way, and more in a “Did I just see that” fashion. I’m still not particularly sure how to feel after Hawk’s nightmare of Volkswagen Bugs dressed up as Native Americans, with stereotypical headdresses on their hoods. But I know that the movie’s batty sense of humor—at least, God help me, I think that’s supposed to be funny—works out better when it doesn’t have to unload exposition in the meantime. Even though the story—an evil land developer tries to destroy the firehouse where Herbie lives, and the little car plus a few good humans fight back—is relatively coherent, and common enough in family movies, that doesn’t make the film’s tone any less scattershot.
Walt Disney Pictures has a solid history of creating interesting live-action franchises, almost by accident, and not knowing what to do with those franchises once they become popular. The Herbie franchise is the most enduring of all, lasting nearly 40 years if you consider the reboot back in 2005 (and I will, even if I live to regret it). But there were only a few movies, and none of them were as successful as the original. I’ve heard that the next film in the series, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, is a fine return to form, and I hope so. Herbie Rides Again, in many respects, feels as unnecessary as its special effects.