‘Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo’ – A Fairytale Romance Between Car and Car
Written By Arthur Alsberg and Don Nelson, based on the novel Car, Boy, Girl by Gordon Buford
Directed By Vincent McEveety
USA, 1977, imdb
From the time that “Disney’s Folly” paid off and the first-ever animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, became a hit, Disney (the company that Walt created) has been in the business of telling fairy tales. What we sometimes forget is that fairy tales can be stories that reassure children, but also stories that scare the bejeezus out of them. Case in point, the first film that I ever saw: Walt Disney’s Bambi, a film that also terrified Stephen King as a child.
The Herbie series is much more on the reassuring side of the spectrum than the scary side, with the odd exception like the nightmare sequence in Herbie Rides Again, but even a reassuring fairy tale telling kids that machines can have friendly personalities is not so very far from much darker films like the Terminator series or Christine.
It shouldn’t be that surprising then that the Herbie series and the odd way that the series is constructed reminds me so much of horror series. If Herbie Rides Again reminded me of Halloween III: Season of the Witch and to a lesser extent to Alien³, than Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo reminds me of Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.
The Nightmare on Elm Street series is odd because concealed within the first seven films is a trilogy of excellent films (Nightmare on Elm Street, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare) surrounded by derivative, repetitive swill. The common denominator between the three films is Wes Craven who wrote all three films and directed the first and last of the hidden trilogy… and Heather Langenkamp who starred in all three films. What binds the three films together is the evolution of Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) from victim to teacher to warrior-mother.
While the Nightmare on Elm Street hidden trilogy succeeds because of the combination of creator (Wes Craven) and star (Heather Langenkamp), the Herbie series is much more star driven.
Herbie Rides Again had the same creative team as The Love Bug, except for Dean Jones, who didn’t just act as Jim Douglas in the first film. He was also the man who approached Walt Disney to make the film in the first place. Jones’ original idea was to make a movieabout the first race car brought to the United States. Walt Disney suggested the Gordon Buford novel Car, Boy, Girl instead, but the film remained focused on race cars and car racing. The return of Dean Jones in Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo and the return to the world of car racing makes the film seem more like a sequel to The Love Bug than Herbie Rides Again does. It also pays off remarks made by Jim Douglas in the first film about taking Herbie to Europe to race.
But it’s not Jim Douglas who evolves as a character, it’s Herbie. In the first film, Herbie is basically an emo child, dramatically threatening to throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge. In the second film, while more mature than in the first film, Herbie still engages in childish hijinks, like chasing seagulls on the beach. Reuniting with Jim Douglas brings Herbie to a new level of maturity. Rather than trying to set others up in romances like a Volkswagen Yenta, Herbie pursues his own relationship with Gisele, the Lancia Scorpion driven by female race car driver Diane Darcy (Julie Sommars).
The Lancia Scorpion was the U.S. model of the European Lancia, called the Lancia Montecarlo. (Lancia had to rename the car in the States because Chevrolet had their own Monte Carlo.) One way of thinking about the film is that Herbie is not just racing to Monte Carlo the city, he is going to Montecarlo – his would-be automotive girlfriend.
That Herbie and Gisele are still teenagers is reflected by how easy it is for Wheely Applegate (Don Knotts) to manipulate them emotionally. Herbie also leaks oil on to a Parisian police officer when the cop insults him, but Herbie is much better behaved – more mature – than in the first two films. When he resorts to violence, it is only to defend Jim and Wheely. Herbie also shows incredible restraint when he captures the film’s main bad guy using almost judo-like techniques to restrain and disarm him.
As Josh pointed out on the podcast and in his extended thoughts, the film suffers from one sub-plot too many and lacks a truly excellent villain like Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn) from Herbie Rides Again or Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson) from The Love Bug. The worst part of this is that Herbie’s natural enemy is right there: Bruno von Stickle (Eric Braeden) who is driving a kit car version of the Porsche 917 in the Paris to Monte Carlo race, built out of parts not that different from the ones inside Herbie. There is a natural story there about Stickle’s car and Herbie being equally matched under the hood, but Herbie being underestimated because the kit car looks so much faster. We also know, looking back in the rear-view mirror, that Eric Braeden makes a great bad guy having played the villainous Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless for decades. There are brief flashes of how good a villain and an actor he is as Stickle gets increasingly frustrated every time Herbie, Jim and Wheely pass him during the race. (Four times by my count.)
Those niggling distractions aside, the heart of Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo is the relationship between Herbie and Gisele and the film’s best scenes are the ones of the two cars together – from Herbie’s nervous courting in Paris; to his rescue of Gisele in the lake; to the touching doors sequence at the end of the film. It may not be Wall-E and EVE, but the teenage fairy-tale romance between Herbie and Gisele makes Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo the best of the Herbie films.
– Michael Ryan