Lindsay Lohan continues her reign as queen of Disney remakes with “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” a pleasingly retro recycling of “The Love Bug” (1969’s highest-grossing pic) and its various feature and tube sequels. Though aimed primarily at a demographic much younger (and less aggressively hip) than the crowd that flocked to see Lohan’s somewhat saucier turn in last year’s “Mean Girls,” family-friendly comedy about an amazingly anthropomorphic ’63 VW Beetle likely will further enhance actress’s marquee value. More important, pic should prove a potent B.O. performer as G-rated alternative to darker and/or edgier summer fare.
Working from script credited to small platoon of scribes (and based on characters created by Gordon Buford), helmer Angela Robinson smoothly shifts gears from her coming-out comedy “D.E.B.S.” for a different take on girl power.
Title sequence amusingly quotes earlier “Herbie” pics to accompaniment of apt Beach Boys tune (“Getcha Back”), sounding a ’70s nostalgic note that occasionally reprises in split-screen visuals, musical cues and some deliberately low-tech special effects. But characterization of thoroughly modern Maggie Peyton (Lohan) goes a long way toward giving familiar material a contempo spin.
Newly graduated from college, Maggie is bound for New York to accept an assistant producer gig at ESPN. Her career choice comes as great relief to her widowed father, Ray Peyton Sr. (Michael Keaton), a fading NASCAR champ who wants his less-than-promising son (Breckin Meyer), not his born-to-drive daughter, to carry on the family tradition of high-speed competition.
Before she can leave the West Coast, however, Maggie makes a fateful visit to an auto junkyard to procure low-cost transportation. That’s where she spots Herbie, the magical VW Bug, in a sorry state of disrepair. Unaware of the car’s miraculous powers, she buys the apparent clunker for $75. It doesn’t take long for her to discover what a bargain she’s found.
Indeed, Maggie wins a street race without really trying — without really driving, actually — when the mysteriously sentient Herbie takes her along for the ride while defeating an ultra-expensive rig driven by vainglorious champ Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon). Encouraged by Kevin (Justin Long), a mechanic friend and would-be suitor, Maggie contrives to continue racing without the knowledge of her disapproving father.
Naturally, since this is a G-rated Disney pic, nothing good comes of this deception. Just as naturally, however, resourceful Maggie and resilient Herbie have the right stuff to weather a few speed bumps — including a detour through a demolition derby and a couple of grudge rematches with Trip — on their way to the winner’s circle.
Given the amount of tabloid coverage recently given to Lohan’s offscreen travails, some people who have nothing better to do may peruse “Fully Loaded” for signs of the star’s much-publicized physical gains and losses. (Insert joke about headlights here.) But vast majority of pic’s target aud will pay little heed to such matters, and instead will enjoy the perky sincerity of Lohan’s appealing perf as a young woman feeling her way through a coming-of-age transition that takes her from skateboarding to fast-tracking.
(For the record: “Herbie: Fully Loaded” is Lohan’s third Disney remake or sequel, after 1998’s “The Parent Trap” and 2003’s “Freaky Friday.”)
Not surprisingly, Herbie (and his various stand-ins, or drive-ins, or whatever) easily upstages all of Lohan’s human co-stars. Still, it’s worth noting that Keaton, Long and Dillon are thoroughgoing pros in roles that usually attract attention only when they’re overplayed. Even as the sneering villain of the piece, Dillon tries to keep things real, giving a perf that is genuinely funny but effectively understated. Another standout, Jill Ritchie as Maggie’s ditzy friend, is just comical enough in small doses.
Tech wizards led by visual effects supervisor John Van Vliet provide movie magic that, except for flashes of obvious CGI trickery, appear deliberately tamped down to better resemble look of earlier “Herbie” adventures. Sight gags involving Herbie’s defense mechanisms (spurting oil, ejection seats, flapping doors, etc.) and expressive accessories (including a “smiling” front bumper) are old-school touches that, despite their familiarity, generate most of the laughs they’re designed to get.