Herbie the Love Bug – Series Retrospective
When it comes to classic live-action Disney films, you have quite a variety of films to choose from. There are the classics like Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks along with more recent hits like the Pirates of the Caribbean films or some of Disney’s recent live-action remakes of their animated classics. But there is one classic Disney franchise that you don’t hear about as often compared to some of the studio’s other contributions to the world of pop culture, and it just so happens that this series recently celebrated its 50th anniversary a few months back. The franchise in question is the series of films that focused on an adorable white Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own known as Herbie the Love Bug AKA #53. It all started when Walt Disney purchased the film rights to a 1961 book by Gordon Buford titled Car, Boy, Girl. With all the trappings of a Disney classic, this film adaptation (renamed The Love Bug) went on to become an all-time Disney classic and spawned a full-blown franchise that included four theatrical follow-ups, one made-for-TV film, and a short-lived television series. And while the franchise admittedly hasn’t been active since 2005, it’s still worth checking out for those who are curious about some of Disney’s lesser-known projects. With that in mind, today we’ll be looking back at the long history of one of the most iconic cars to ever grace the screen. Thus, without further ado, buckle your seatbelts and prepare for one wild ride as we look at the Herbie films.
THE LOVE BUG (1968)
The original Love Bug was very much a classic Disney production. It featured Disney regulars like Dean Jones and David Tomlinson, was directed by company mainstay Robert Stevenson (who also directed Mary Poppins… need I say more?) and was reportedly one of the last major live-action Disney films approved by Walt himself. Sure enough, while there are some aspects of the film that are clearly a product of their time, The Love Bug is still a delightfully wacky comedy about down-on-his-luck race car driver Jim Douglas (Jones) and all the hi-jinx that ensues when he becomes the new owner of a seemingly sentient Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie. The film boasts some impressive racing sequences for the time, highlighted by a highly entertaining finale race known as ‘the El Dorado’ that’s full of hilarious moments; everything from the main antagonist getting stuck inside Herbie (“GET ME OUT OF HERE!”) to him mistaking a bear for his assistant (“Havershaw, you ever think about getting a manicure?”). And these racing sequences are only strengthened further by its excellent cast of leads. Jones and Michele Lee, who plays Douglas’ love interest Carole Bennett, have excellent chemistry with each other while the one and only Buddy Hackett provides plenty of great humor and charm as Jim’s best friend and mechanic Tennessee Steinmetz, who boasts the strongest personal connection to Herbie right from the get-go. Ultimately, though, the biggest standout of the film is Mary Poppins’ Mr. Banks himself, David Tomlinson, who is delightfully over-the-top as the pompous and constantly shouting antagonist Peter Thorndyke. And while the film is certainly full of great humor, it still treats the concept of a ‘living car’ seriously, never going too over-the-top with Herbie’s actions. And considering that there’s one scene where Jim tries to prevent Herbie from driving off the Golden Gate Bridge, that’s saying something. Because of this, it’s easy to see why The Love Bug is such a beloved entry in Disney’s prestigious library of classics. It’s practically the very definition of a ‘feel-good’ film.
HERBIE RIDES AGAIN (1974)
While none of the original cast from The Love Bug returned to reprise their roles in the sequel, Herbie Rides Again, director Robert Stevenson returned to helm it and several aspects of the plot maintain that this is a follow-up to the original (though it should be noted that these films can be quite inconsistent with their continuity). This time, we follow a lawyer named Willoughby Whitfield who ends up working with Herbie, Tennessee’s aunt (his current owner), and her neighbor Nicole to save Tennessee and Jim’s old firehouse apartment from being demolished by his greedy uncle, real estate developer Alonzo Hawk. This results in the plot moving away from focusing on racing like in the first film in favor of a more traditional ‘save the neighborhood’ plot, with the only major racing sequence being a montage/flashback of scenes from The Love Bug. In other words, Herbie films either end up being a ‘racing comedy’ or a ‘car comedy’ and Herbie Rides Again falls into the latter category. However, there are still plenty of great instances of Herbie’s fun shenanigans to go around, and while a lot of moments in this film are far more ludicrous compared to the first (e.g. a scene where Herbie rides up the side of the Golden Gate Bridge), it’s still a delightful comedic romp. The lead trio of Helen Hayes (‘Grandma’ Steinmetz), Stefanie Powers (Nicole), and Ken Berry (Willoughby) are all terrific and prove to be just as much of a likable bunch as Jim, Carole, and Tennessee from the first film. But just like the first film, the biggest standout is the villain, Alonzo Hawk, who happens to be a notable recurring villain of live-action Disney films as he’s also appeared in 1961’s The Absent-Minded Professor and its 1963 sequel, Son of Flubber. Like David Tomlinson in the previous film, Keenan Wynn is delightfully over-the-top, and some of the best humorous moments in the film are all the scenes in which Herbie messes with him, including a delightfully surreal dream sequence involving flying Herbies and man-eating Herbies (don’t ask…). All in all, Herbie Rides Again is a very enjoyable follow-up to The Love Bug. Obviously, I wouldn’t say that it’s ‘as good’ as its predecessor, but with a brisk 88-minute run-time, it’s a worthwhile family flick.
HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO (1977)
After being absent for Herbie Rides Again, Dean Jones returned to the role of Jim Douglas for the third film, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, now joined by Don Knotts as his new mechanic Wheely. And as the title suggests, this film sees Herbie and the two traveling overseas to partake in the Trans-France race from France to Monte Carlo. Along the way, the trio deal with a pair of bumbling thieves who are after a valuable diamond that they stashed in Herbie’s fuel tank and the Love Bug even falls in love with a Lancia owned by one of Douglas’ fellow racers. Unlike the previous two films, this film was directed by Vincent McEveety, another regular from Disney who, at the time, was admittedly known for directing some of the studio’s most negatively-received live-action films (e.g. 1971’s The Million Dollar Duck, which was one of only three films that Siskel and Ebert’s Gene Siskel ever walked out on; Roger Ebert wasn’t too fond of it, either…). But as for his first foray with Herbie, he manages to deliver another enjoyable sequel that’s more in line visually and tonally with the original. In other words, this one doesn’t have any major surreal moments (at least when compared to Herbie Rides Again) while still maintaining the franchise’s great sense of humor throughout. It’s also focused more on racing like the original, resulting in some more solid racing sequences that utilize the plot’s European setting to great effect. Dean Jones is incredibly likable once again as Jim Douglas while Don Knotts proves to be a worthy successor to Buddy Hackett as Douglas’ new mechanic friend thanks to Knotts and Jones’ terrific camaraderie. Other notable members of the supporting cast include Julie Sommars as Diane Darcy, the previously mentioned Lancia driver who often keeps Jim and Wheely on their toes while not quite grasping the idea of Herbie and her car falling in love, and Roy Kinnear and Bernard Fox as the not-very-effective thieves. Because of all this, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo is another satisfying follow-up to the titular character’s first cinematic outing, finding a nice mix between the entertaining racing action of The Love Bug and the madcap humor of Herbie Rides Again to produce another classic Herbie adventure.
HERBIE GOES BANANAS (1980)
McEveety returned to direct the next Herbie film, Herbie Goes Bananas, which followed the same route as Herbie Goes Again by being more of a comedic ‘car adventure’ than a racing film. This time around, Herbie is sent to Central America where he is taken by Jim Douglas’ nephew Pete (Stephen Burns) and ends up going on a crazy trip across the region with a young pickpocket named Paco (Joaquin Garay III). However, this also ended up being Herbie’s last big-screen adventure for several years and is often considered to be the weakest entry of the original quadrilogy… which it kind of is. Herbie is barely in it for the first third and the plot is a bit of a mess, constantly moving around a bunch of subplots ranging from Pete and his best friend D.J. (Charles Martin Smith) trying to get a sponsor for their race by suckering up to a flirtatious aunt and her niece to a trio of gangsters looking to find gold. Still, that’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its standout moments when Herbie is used properly, culminating in a scene where the little car partakes in a bullfight and another where he pursues the gangsters as they try to escape via an airplane that good old #53 completely totals. Like Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, this film does benefit from some nice cinematography that does a solid job of highlighting its international setting. And while far from being the series’ best main characters, the main leads are all a likable bunch with a solid ensemble cast that notably features Mel Brooks regulars Cloris Leachman as the flirtatious Aunt Louise and Harvey Korman as self-centered ship captain Blythe. Plus, the friendship that forms between Herbie and Paco (who calls Herbie ‘Ocho’ because of his number 53 insignia and “five and three are eight… everyone knows that!”) is genuinely sweet… even with that goofy musical montage midway through. In short, in a lot of ways, it’s easy to see why Herbie Goes Bananas is far from being Herbie’s best cinematic outing and why it also kept the franchise grounded for a few years. And yet, maybe it’s just my nostalgic ties to this franchise talking for me, but I’ll admit that I still like this film. Overall, I’d say that it’s a generally harmless family flick (though, with that said, I won’t argue against anyone who says that this one relies on a bit too many South American stereotypes) that has just enough Herbie in it (though not as much as the other films in the series) to satisfy longtime fans.
HERBIE, THE LOVE BUG (TV SERIES – 1982)
Taking a brief detour from the film series for a moment, we have what is probably the most unique facet of the Love Bug franchise, Herbie the Love Bug (AKA Herbie the Matchmaker), a short-lived TV series that aired on CBS in 1982. And I do mean ‘short-lived’ because this show was ultimately canceled after just five episodes as a mid-season replacement series. As such, there’s not that much to talk about here given that this was just five episodes of a show that’s now been off the air for decades. Still, it is a major part of this franchise, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least address it… even though I’ll admit that I never even knew about it until after I started doing this retrospective. The series saw Dean Jones return as Jim Douglas, now retired from racing, as he tries to run a driving school despite facing various financial difficulties. During this time, he also falls in love with a woman named Susan (Patricia Harty), whom he and Herbie rescue from a bank robbery, despite various attempts made by her ex-fiancé Randy (Larry Linville) to break them up. This is mainly by trying to exploit Jim’s past as a driver, as racing was the reason why Susan broke up with her previous husband. Other characters included Jim’s business partner Bo (Richard Paul) and Susan’s three kids; her rebellious daughter Julie (Claudia Wells AKA the OG Jennifer from Back to the Future) and her impressionable sons Robbie (Douglas Emerson) and Matthew (Nicky Katt). Two episodes were directed by Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo and Herbie Goes Bananas director Vincent McEveety while another two were directed by Bill Bixby AKA David Banner from the iconic Incredible Hulk TV series.
Simply put, this show delivers quite a good dosage of Herbie action to satisfy fans of the franchise. The transition from the big screen to the small screen does not result in the titular car losing any of his trademark charm. However, there are quite a few moments in this show where Herbie acts a bit out of character. In fact, it often gets to the point where his actions get him and Jim into a bit too much trouble rather than getting them out of it as usual (e.g. when their driving school gets closed temporarily in Episode 2 because Herbie messes with Randy during an inspection or the whole plot of Episode 5 where Herbie’s anger at Jim and Susan deciding to get a new family car ends up getting him impounded). Overall, the show runs more like Herbie Rides Again and Herbie Goes Bananas, focusing more on the comedic misadventures that Herbie and Jim get into rather than them racing (though with that said, the racing sequences in this show, specifically in Episode 3, are quite good). Dean Jones is charismatic as always in the role of Jim while also having some nice chemistry with Patricia Harty, and everyone else in the cast is generally solid as well. In short, we’ll never know if this would’ve been able to last as a full series instead of just five episodes. While Episode 4 does conclude with Jim and Susan getting married, Episode 5 isn’t necessarily a ‘finale’ type episode. But for what its worth, Herbie the Love Bug is another worthy addition to this classic franchise. Sadly, though, unlike the feature films, this series has not seen an official release on home video. For the record, all five episodes are currently available on YouTube, though those eager to check them out should know in advance that the video/audio isn’t that great given that they were recorded off the TV.
A few months back, there were reports of a new Herbie series that was in development for Disney XD. However, there hasn’t been any news about it since and based on a few details that were given about the show, perhaps it was for the best that it seemingly didn’t go through. For starters, it was reported that Herbie would be given the ability to talk, which didn’t go over too well with longtime fans of the character.
THE LOVE BUG (1997)
The Love Bug franchise stayed dormant for a few years after the cancellation of the titular TV series until 1997, when Herbie returned to the screen, albeit the small screen this time around, in a made-for-TV film that was a combination of a sequel and a remake. It was a sequel by way of it acknowledging the events of the 1968 film but was also basically a retelling of that film’s plot (a down-on-his-luck driver and his goofy best friend come across Herbie and race against a snobby foreign driver). The film was also notable for being one of the first directorial efforts from Peyton Reed (who also directed a TV remake of another classic Disney film, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes) several years before he directed Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man films. What follows is quite arguably the most serious installment of the franchise… which also means that this one is kind of lacking in terms of humor. Thankfully, it does make up for this somewhat by having some genuinely effective emotional moments. Specifically, there’s a scene where Herbie dies (yes, dies!) after getting attacked by his ‘evil twin’, a black Volkswagen Beetle named Horace. It’s all good, though, as Herbie does get brought back to life complete with a pitch-perfect cameo appearance by Dean Jones in what would ultimately be his final appearance as Jim Douglas. As for the rest of the cast, Bruce Campbell is, well, Bruce Campbell as main protagonist Hank Cooper, Kevin J. O’Connor and Alexandra Wentworth are both solid as Hank’s best friend Roddy and love interest Alex, respectively, and John Hannah is delightfully sinister as the main antagonist Simon Moore. In short, while the TV film ‘remake’ of The Love Bug is far from being the best entry in the series (it’s also not winning any awards for its dated 90’s CGI), it’s still a decent addition to the franchise. Like the Herbie TV series, though, this one hasn’t seen an official release outside of its original VHS home media release. It can be found on YouTube, though, and in far better quality, too, when compared to the TV series.
HERBIE: FULLY LOADED (2005)
And finally, we conclude with Herbie’s return to the big screen in 2005, Herbie: Fully Loaded. As I’m sure was the case for several other people, this was the film that properly introduced me to Herbie and his franchise as it was the first Herbie film that I ever saw. Right after that, I immediately proceeded to watch all the other films by renting them from Blockbuster (apologies for making everyone feel super old just now…). Anyway, ignoring the events of the 1997 remake, the film focuses on Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan), the daughter of a struggling race team owner (Michael Keaton) who becomes Herbie’s new owner as the two work together to achieve her dream of becoming a professional NASCAR driver. But upon this film’s release, it wasn’t a big hit with critics, and based on what I’ve seen online, it seems like fans of the Herbie franchise aren’t too fond of this one, either. The downward spiral that Lohan’s career went on immediately afterward may have also impacted the film in the long run. But I don’t know… again, maybe it’s my nostalgia talking here (even though I haven’t seen this film in years), but I think that Fully Loaded is still a decent entry in the series. There’s nothing really in this film that ‘betrays’ the essence of the franchise, and that even includes the controversial decision to give Herbie more expressive facial reactions. At the very least, it has all the classic Herbie moments that we know and love, from Herbie working as a ‘matchmaker’ for the main protagonist to Herbie messing with the main antagonist (in this case, a cocky NASCAR driver named Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon)) to the point where he’s practically driven insane. Plus, it utilizes Herbie a heck of a lot better than Herbie Goes Bananas. Now, granted, it could be argued that this film’s plot is quite predictable as it’s sort of another general ‘redo’ of the plot of the original Love Bug. Ultimately, though, it still manages to hit just enough of the right notes as far as this franchise is concerned, and if anything, it shows that prior to her career going down the gutter, Lindsay Lohan was a genuinely charismatic female lead. Just look at films like Mean Girls or the remake of Disney’s The Parent Trap. In fact, given how Herbie: Fully Loaded is an early 2000’s Disney film with a strong female lead, it’s kind of underrated in that regard.
And that concludes this retrospective on the five feature films, one made-for-TV film, and short-lived TV series starring one of the most beloved cars in the world of pop culture, Herbie the Love Bug. Thanks for following along and be sure to sound off in the comments below with your own personal memories of this classic Disney franchise. And be sure to follow us on Twitter (@TheDisInsider) to stay up to date on our content, which regularly provides you folks with Disney news, reviews, lists, and everything in between.