An old movie franchise from Disney’s Buena Vista features a sentient car, zero CGI and enough heart and wildness that even kids raised on modern action films can feel the joy.
I’m not sure why I took a chance watching 1969’s Disney classic The Love Bug with my two grade-school-aged boys. I had no reason to believe they would like it. They’ve been thoroughly dazzled by modern Marvel Studios CGI fare, so why would they give a shit about a movie starring a sentient VW Bug? This gets even crazier when you consider that a more famous sentient VW Bug is a member of the Transformers, so, in theory, as an ’80s kids, even I shouldn’t have cared. Which is why it’s shocking to me that my boys and I all loved The Love Bug.
For those struggling to remember The Love Bug and it’s star Herbie, here’s the deal: The film follows a down-and-out Northern California race car driver as he looks for a car that can get him back into the road-racing circuit. After finding himself in an upscale foreign car dealership run by the guy who plays Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) in Mary Poppins, he meets Herbie the VW, who is barely being controlled by the dealership’s staff. After flirting with a lovely saleslady and defending Herbie’s honor, the race car driver is launched into both a love story and a wild racing career with his new high-octane friend.
The word “bonkers” is, in fact, the only child-friendly description of The Love Bug. And that’s because the real description of the movie is “fucking insane.” The more erudite might describe the film as “magical realism,” but honestly, Marquez can’t touch the weirdness of this movie. Herbie’s sentience is just treated as kind of a mundane fact, into an otherwise realistic San Francisco at the height of the Summer of Love. But, luckily because this is technically a kid’s movie, we don’t need an explanation of why the cute-as-hell hunk of German steel has a mischievous soul. There’s no magical comet that makes him come to life, like in Maximum Overdrive. There’s no AllSpark, as required for Transformers. He isn’t an elaborate artificial intelligence like K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider. There’s no need to complicate things. Herbie’s just alive. Get over it.
It was easy for my boys to believe in the scrappy VW bug. From his first huge, signature wheelie through the Market District, my boys were in love with Herbie. They laughed long and hard it when he peed oil on the villainous Peter Thorndyke. They cheered as he evaded capture and wreaked havoc in Chinatown. They cheered even more as the car skipped across a lake and hurled itself down impossibly steep cliffs in the final race.
I think part of the reason the kids were so easily wooed by Herbie is that none of the insane stunts in the movie are CGI. These are what’s known as “practical effects,” these days. Herbie was actually doing the insane and dangerous things he was doing. What my kids were seeing wasn’t programmed — all the dust and smoke and crashes were real and made all the more thrilling for their physicality.
Are there problematic, cringe-worthy scenes? Sure. It’s a film of its time. But incredibly it’s not that bad. The Chinese character, for instance, is treated respectfully. And when Buddy Hackett speaks Chinese he, beyond all reasonable expectation, doesn’t squint up his eyes and make a mockery. Will the wokest of the woke be able to deal with Herbie? Probably not, but there’s not enough backward thinking to make Herbie a no-go for kids these days. And honestly, relative to something like Peter Pan, a supposed Disney classic, The Love Bug manages to come across as politically sensitive.
The final stunt of the film finds Herbie cracking apart while racing as the driver’s friend, played by a loveable Buddy Hackett attempts to weld him back together. Incredibly, the bug splits in two in the final stretch and keeps driving, the back half finishing first and the rear finishing third. It’s a thrilling bit of movie magic that looks completely believable and wickedly dangerous. But what allows Herbie to stand the test of time and remain cool in our modern day is the fact that parents can enjoy the movie too, and not just from a nostalgia trip. The movie actually moves forward in an exciting way and reminds you why we watch movies in the first place.