Tuesday, April 4, 2023

The Love Bug (1997)

Herbie Rides Bananas in Monte Carlo... Again!

I know that you're probably thinking that I am going to review a certain 2005 film starring a pre-trainwreck child actress, but NO! Tonight's nostalgic pic is the 1997 made for television movie "The Love Bug."

Upon hearing that there's a 1997 "Wonderful World of Disney" film called "The Love Bug" and seeing images from this movie you might be inclined to think that it's a remake of the original 1968 film, except that you'd be wrong: This is in fact, another canonical sequel to that film!

What's it about?

We start at a race where we are introduced to Simon Moore III (John Hannah), a former F1 driver and rich heir who purchased a familiar VW Beetle race car which he refers to as "the Douglas car."

"I'm rich! And mean!"

After coming in last, the angry Moore tells his toady employee Rupert (Dana Gould) to get rid of it.
"I'm confused: Am I supposed to be likable, sir?"

Rupert regretfully has the little car towed away.
Sad Herbie.

We cut to a struggling auto garage owned by "Chuck" (Clarence Williams III, who classic TV viewers will recognize as Linc from "The Mod Squad"), whose business is struggling.
"If business gets any worse, I'll trim the staff like I trimmed my afro!"

This serves as the introduction to our protagonist, Hank Cooper (Bruce Campbell), a retired F1 race driver and middling mechanic and his artist friend Roddy Martel (Kevin J. O'Connor).
Hollywood hates Bruce, for some reason.

"I'm the Lord of Illusions!"

Chuck informs Hank that he has to use his waning celebrity by entering a junker race (where mechanics have to fix a broken-down car and drive it for a chance to win the vehicle in a single lap race) in order to promote Chuck's garage. The three judges of the race are the previously established villainous millionaire Simon Moore III, custom car fabricator Donny Shotz (Micky Dolenz of "The Monkees"), and magazine reporter Alex Davis (Alexandra Wentworth), Hank's former girlfriend.
I don't know what I was expecting, but Micky Dolenz wasn't it.

Hank and Roddy are paired with the little Volkswagen, which Hank repairs with input from Roddy who picks up on the little car's communications. Easily winning the race thanks to the VW's seemingly superpowered abilities, Hank piques the interest of the judges, and especially Moore, who becomes obsessed with the car again. Hank and Alex begin to explore the car's capabilities and are informed by Roddy that the car's name is "Herbie," both because the car told him so and because he has a name plate engraved in the boot. Hank refuses to believe that the car was responsible for his sudden success as he starts a new relationship with Alex, while Moore tracks down the car's original designer, Dr. Gustav Stumpfel (Harold Gould) and entices him to build another "living car," this time pouring his self-love and hatred into the mix, creating the demonically evil "Horace, the Hate Bug."
Pictured: Textbook Disney scientist.

As funny as it is sinister.

Can Hank rebuild his life with Herbie while Moore and Horace seek to destroy them both?

Let's get the "bad" out of the way first. 

Disney fans will instantly recognize this film as being produced under the helm of Michael Eisner, who was notorious for creating ultra-cheap sequels and soulless remakes of classic Disney properties. This being a television production means that the budget is even lower than it otherwise would be, and this rears its head in odd ways throughout the film. For example, most of the story is delivered via ham-fisted exposition dumps where characters stand around discussing the past or excessively explaining things that would have required a unit shoot to show the audience. While this stretches the (thin) budget it also leads to stretches of the movie that just seem like padding. Even though the vast majority of the actors here do a fantastic job, one notable standout is actress and "In Living Color" alum Alexandra Wentworth, who is absolutely terrible in this.

"Ahm an ahc-tor! Emotions and such!"

It might be a combination of this being one of her first movie roles or just bad direction, but her lines are delivered unconvincingly with a "read off the page" cadence, which is a shame because nowadays she is quite accomplished (don't judge her career by this movie, is all I'm saying). In spite of this being a sequel, much of the film seems like a retread of the original movie, from the "car kidnaps couple" introduction to the race through the desert at the end.
Some moments seem like storyboards from the first movie.

They try to change certain things up (like Herbie being sliced lengthwise at the end rather than breaking in half along the width of the vehicle in the original), but it still feels like familiar territory.
How is Herbie's engine even running?

The film has almost none of the puppetry of the original movies, which is a shame, and the car doesn't appear to be one of the original production Herbies as there certain elements that are changed or missing (such as the gray seats or the racing stripe on his canvas top).

Herbie Retcons Again!

This movie retcons Herbie's origin and the details of his creation, which for some might be a plus while others might be a major detraction. In this continuity, Herbie was a U.S. government project to create a living machine, where his creator couldn't let the nascent being be used as a weapon and released him into the wild.

Fans will either love or hate this scene, or they'll think it's okay.

This process is what leads the film's antagonist to create a "bigger and more evil version" of the hero car, predating Marvel movies by more than a decade. When you consider that Herbie seemingly already had alternate timelines going, this sort of seals the series as a cinematic trendsetter.

A lot to love, bug

Now let's get into the good. I love this movie. There is an absolutely fantastic cast here, led by "Evil Dead" veteran Bruce Campbell, who somehow never managed to crack into the mainstream despite his leading man good looks and humorous delivery.

Selling it.

Supporting actors John Hannah and Kevin J. O'Connor (who would later star together in 1999's big-budget action/horror movie "The Mummy" alongside Brendan Fraser) deliver may of the funniest lines in the film. Dana Gould's goofy likability is a bit underused, but even his character seems to have layers. Dean Jones reprises his role of Jim Douglas one last time in a moment that may just have fans of the series wiping a tear from their eye.
"One last time, old chum."

While the automotive puppetry falls short, computer animation and compositing effects are much better than a 1997 television movie has any right to have (they still stand out, but look really good for the time).
This made me laugh.

Horace the Hate Bug breaks out one of the series biggest (if not the biggest) villains, and much of the film's production seems to have gone into underlining his menace.
With a bag of dirty tricks.

Overall, despite the flaws, this is almost essential viewing for any Herbie fan…

Where can you watch it?

…Which is a shame, because Disney is trying its level-headed best to sweep the Eisner era under the rug, and as a result there has been no modern release of the film. It is not available on Blu-Ray, it was never released on DVD, and it is not currently being streamed on Disney+ or by any other *legal* means.

"Screw the rules, I have money!"

Unless you're planning on tracking down the ultra-rare VHS copy of the film, you need to watch it any way you can find (rhymes with MooCube).

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