Herbie: Fully Loaded

(2005) ** 1/2 G
92 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Angela Robinson. Cast: Lindsay Lohan, Michael Keaton, Matt Dillon, Breckin Meyer, Justin Long.

Herbie: Fully Loaded is for kids. Kids whose parents don't mind fast cars (and particularly NASCAR) being glorified to the next generation of drivers (let's face it: a heroic hot rod isn't as PC as it used to be). Like most G-rated movies, Herbie: Fully Loaded tells a simplistic, manipulative story with dopey jokes. But if you can steer around these obstacles, it's otherwise open track to the finish line of this solid kid's movie.

Director Angela Robinson dispatches the movie's stupidest scene early on, as heroine Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan of Freaky Friday) skateboards up to collect her college diploma just in time. As a graduation gift, her race-legend father Ray Peyton, Sr. (Michael Keaton) treats her to a junkyard car. Thanks to some indelicate moves on the part of everyone's favorite anthropomorphic 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, Maggie notices and reluctantly saves a rusty heap from the crusher: Herbie, good ol' Number 53 (the car made famous in four previous features, starting with 1969's The Love Bug).

It's immediately apparent that something's a bit odd about Herbie. "Great!" Maggie hollers. "I'm being hijacked by my own car!" Herbie uses every appendage on his frame to prod, goad, humiliate, or fight the humans around him, and he's always ready to pee grease and oil to make a point. When she's not threatening to call an exorcist, Maggie scolds, "You know, for a car, you'e not a very good listener"; I'm still scratching my head over that one. Eventually, Maggie and Herbie bond lovingly--just in time for that NASCAR race (good news for those "executives in charge of production for NASCAR"), where Jeff Gordon sizes Herbie up, and announcer Benny Parsons blurts the obvious: "I've never seen anything like this in the history of NASCAR!"

When an old high-school friend/mechanic (Justin Long of Dodgeball: A True Story) offers to work on Herbie, Maggie accepts, but not before the car with a mind of its own makes an enemy of strutting NASCAR star Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon). An impromptu drag race starts a rivalry that continues in a desert racing event (capped with another one-on-one race, "for pinks") and resolves—at least, for now—at a NASCAR race on the California Speedway. Though her fearful father resists letting Maggie behind the wheel in a hard-driving NASCAR race, events conspire in favor of Maggie, "the next great Peyton" (as one person tells her, "It's hard-wired in your DNA").

Herbie starred in a 1997 Wonderful World of Disney telefilm, but he hasn't headlined a feature since 1980. On one hand, CGI is Herbie's best friend, allowing not only improbable stunts but impossible ones. On the other hand, doesn't that take much of the fun out of the series, since driving stunts were always the point? Anyway, the fortysomething car is still quite spry at high speeds, whether pulling signature moves (like popping wheelies) or newfangled "stunts" (like rearing all the way up onto his back bumper, spinning, and returning to four wheels). CGI also enhances Herbie's "acting": his headlights "eyes" wink and his bumper "lip" smiles and frowns.

Herbie: Fully Loaded works because of the talent behind "the wheel." Lohan's a charmer with chops (for her age), and she looks great behind the wheel. Long's as gawkily amusing as usual, and Keaton and Dillon serve the picture well without ever looking foolish (at least not for the wrong reasons: after all, Dillon does yell "You want a piece of me?!" at a VW Bug). Herbie: Fully Loaded also boasts two teams of in-demand, high-priced screenwriters: Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant (members of the well-liked sketch comedy team The State) and Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (Shanghai Noon, TV's Smallville). Their generic but suitable story hums along with affection and humor.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the skillful work of director Angela Robinson, whose feature-length debut D.E.B.S. drew the venom of most critics. Robinson kicks things off with a "historic" credit montage of old Herbie clips and fake headlines, set to the Beach Boys' "Getcha Back." Taking her cue from the red, white, and blue Herbie, Robinson makes her movie colorful and high-octane, though I still don't understand how "Walking on Sunshine" is an appropriate music cue for a car-racing scene and, as Entertainment Weekly recently pointed out, "Born to Be Wild" should be permanently retired.

Herbie: Fully Loaded even has a couple of themes: the synthesis of car and driver (though turning an actual driver into a "backseat driver" is more than a little disconcerting) and feminist empowerment (Cheryl Hines's character scoffs about how NASCAR's been trying to court women for years). The latter is always an especially welcome theme in a children's movie, and Herbie: Fully Loaded, with its emotional-roller-coaster story beats, will work like gangbusters with kids.

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