Since I had been fortunate enough to miss or avoid the earlier installments, "The Love Bug" and "Herbie Rides Again," the latest entry in the Disney studio's cycle of farces about the exploits of a sentient, racy Volkswagen, "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo," came as a more stupefying shock than it probably should have. As excruciating kiddie vehicles go, a Herbie is certainly more diverting than a Benji, but comparison at this level smack of sheer desperation.
I can't recall if the previous movies in the series omitted juvenile characters but "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo," now at suburban theaters, does, and it seems a remarkable omission. Evidently, kids are expected to identify solely with Herbie, the "little guy" who leaves bigger, stronger cars in his wake and makes his grown-up owners or attendants took like jerks, a feat that doesn't take much effort.
Parents who bother to react to the films critically are usually put off at once by the idea of encouraging kids to identify with a car. The attributes of this particular car tend to aggravate the offense. Under the guise of good, clean, harmless slapstick fun, Herbie displays a rather embarrassing array of scatalogical and libidinous impulses. One can't help thinking that he's primarily a vehicle for venting certain pent-up agressions within the Disney comedy workshop that can never be plainly expressed.
When Herbie is annoyed with someone, he is likely to retaliate in such cute forms as squirting oil on a leg or blowing exhaust fumes in a face. Although the film is meant to be sustained by intersecting a robbery plot with a car-racing plot - jewel thieves are forced to hide a diamond inside Herbie, who has been entered in a cross-country competition from Paris to Monte Carlo - the preoccupation of the filmmakers appears to be Herbie's fanciful sex life. He begins doing wheelies to impress a Lancia, who bats her headlights to signal reciprocal longings.
There are satirical possibilities in this automotive passion that the Disney team lacks the temerity to exploit. They're content to pretend it's merely darling when they show the VW and Lacia rubbing front fenders, touching doors or cruising through the park. While breathing a sigh of relief that the depictions remain relatively soft-core, adults can't fail to notice how preposterously suggestive they are.
The funniest revelation in the film seems unintended: The romance of the cars is supposed to spark a romance between their owners, Dean project the slightest sexual charisma Jones and Julie Sommars, who don't or rapport. As far as one can tell, it's only the cars that are making it and perhaps only the cars that could make it. Don Knotts seems to be laboring under some terribly naive delusion when he cautions buddy Jones about avoiding romantic entanglements and keeping his mind on racing. If the Jones character is fit to represent anything, it's a kind of befuddled impotence.
Everyone who has passed through an American public school must recall the old Disney driver safety cartoon about Mr. Walker and Mr. Wheeler, in which Goofy starred as a benign suburban pedestrian who became a Mr. Hyde of the highways when he drove a car. A generation ago the studio's cartoonists seemed to possess a commonplace knowledgeability that now eludes the group entrusted with the Herbie series.
"The Recuers" indicated that the studio's decision to train a new generation of animators had begun to pay exceptional dividends. "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo" indicates that the live-action comedy crews may require extensive overhaul, repair and replacement. The success of "Star Wars" has probably dropped the Disney studio behind in the area of machine love itself. What parent wouldn't prefer to see his kid fascinated with a machine like R2-D2 compared to a machine like Herbie?