German engineering meets American fantasy (again) in this tepid remake of the hugely successful 1969 original “The Love Bug” — which was, astonishingly, the highest-grossing film in the United States that year (how scary is that?). This doddering overhaul is unlikely to inspire the same Herbiemania (Beetlemania?) that the first one did in sparking three sequels. Sweet and contrived gives way to lame and contrived.
Not that it’s a complete waste. There is, for one thing, a swell little cameo from Dean Jones, who starred in the first “Love Bug.” Jones gets to show up and reminisce about what Herbie used to be like: “He was everything we’d like ourselves to be — polite, giving, pure.” You’d think he was talking about Mother Teresa rather than a Volkswagen. Whatever lubes your chassis.
Ex-Monkee (or is it current Monkee?) Mickey Dolenz also makes the most of a supporting role, camping it up as an oily racing promoter. And to complete the past-blasting element, Clarence Williams III appears as a slightly wiggy garage owner.
But Ryan Rowe’s teleplay insists on driving the safe, derivative road, weaving a strained good-vs.-evil tale that’s adequate for the kiddy-friendly “Wonderful World of Disney” franchise but fails to lift the bar of family TV entertainment, despite the winning special effects work of Gary D’Amico.
Story continues the car-as-personality theme featuring Herbie, a 1963 VW Bug who locks and unlocks his doors, flicks his headlights, honks his horn, pops wheelies, drives by himself and makes emotive noises that sound vaguely like a kazoo. About the only thing he’s not big on is airbags.
The Herbmeister is saved from demolition by a washed-up, mealy-mouthed former race-car driver named Hank Cooper (Bruce Campbell, of “The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr.”). It slowly dawns on Hank that not every Beetle can travel 100 mph on its back wheels. This here little auto is special.
Also coveting Herbie is an egotistical Scotsman named Simon Moore III (a nice diabolical turn by John Hannah). He winds up cloning Herbie with an evil nemesis he dubs “Horace, the Hate Bug” and sets out to upset the karma of Hank and his former girlfriend, sassy auto journalist Alex (Alexandra Wentworth). This guy will do anything to quash his enemies.
And so it goes in “The Love Bug,” which comes complete with what may be popular entertainment’s first funeral for a car.Director Peyton Reed does a creditable job incorporating his actors and turning them into something other than second bananas to a VW. In fact, Herbie isn’t really all that sweet and lovable here at all. He’s kinda whiny and annoying, frankly, and even his skills at making love happen (between Campbell and Wentworth) are rather suspect.
Next time, Disney would be advised to make “The Love Porsche.” Give us a car that will smoke the enemy, dammit.