Sunday, April 28, 2013

Movie Review: The Love Bug (1969)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Lovable characters and slapstick fun
Cons: Dated effects
The Bottom Line:
Little car that could
Classic underdog story
It's still so much fun

You'll Be Rooting for Number 53

I don't know for sure what the first movie I saw in a theater was, but a likely candidate is a rerelease of The Love Bug.  I have vague memories of seeing a couple scenes on the big screen.  And I certainly remember enjoying the film way back then.

Jim Douglas (Dean Jones) is a down on his luck race car driver.  In fact, he's so far down on his luck that he has resorted to driving in a demolition derby to try to make some money.  Desperate for a new car, he goes into Thorndyke's (David Tomlinson) car dealership.  Unbeknownst to him, when he leaves, he is followed home by a white VW bug.

Feeling tricked into buying the VW, Jim is less than happy.  But his roommate Tennessee Steinmetz (Buddy Hackett) takes a quick shine to the car.  Amazingly enough, Jim discovers that the car, named Herbie by Tennessee, can go fast.  In fact, Jim is winning races again while driving Herbie.  But is it Jim that is really winning?

Meanwhile, Thorndyke doesn't take kindly to being beaten by a VW bug and becomes obsessed with finding out how Herbie is winning.  He even enlists his employee Carole (Michelle Lee) in attempts to get the secret.  The ultimate showdown comes during a two day race through California gold country with Herbie's very existence on the line.  Who will win?

There are several scenes, and one line, from this movie that imprinted themselves on my young mind.  Even watching the movie now I find the scenes are completely as I remember them.  And they are still my favorite moments in the movie.  Further proof (just in case it is needed) that I'm just a big kid at heart.

Because Herbie can think for himself, there's lots of slapstick here.  While it will appeal most directly to kids, adults will enjoy most of it, too.  The story moves forward fairly quickly, helped in large part by this slapstick.  There is one section in the middle that I have always found slow.  Yes, it is highly important for the story.  But it's also the most serious part of the story.

The story is set in San Francisco and the greater California area.  The locations are beautiful.  Yes, several of the locations are obviously matte paintings, but they still look great.  And the use of fog in several scenes gives the movie a haunting feeling.

The main character is really Herbie; the humans are just there to support him.  But that doesn't mean they are bland.  Tennessee and Thorndyke have the most personality, but Jim and Carole are truly sympathetic.  And Herbie?  Yep, he's got quite a personality as well, even if he is a car.  At times you truly know what he is feeling.

None of the actors seem to mind that they are playing second fiddle to a car.  They all put everything they have into their roles.  Again, the standouts are Buddy Hackett and David Tomlinson.  Mr. Hackett has fun as the potentially out there Tennessee, and David Tomlinson keeps Thorndyke from turning into the over the top caricature he easily could have become.

The movie is loaded with special effects.  And yes, many of them do show their age is you want to sit and watch for them.  But as a kid, I believed every moment of it.  And if you let yourself sit back and enjoy, it's easy to get caught up in the belief that Herbie is completely real.

The film was released in 2003 (just before Buddy Hackett's death) on a two disc edition.  Disc one features the film in its original wide screen and a new full surround mix.  There's also an audio commentary with Dean Jones and Buddy Hackett (in studio together) and Michelle Lee (recorded separately).  The two are spliced together, although I found Michelle's comments more interested then the sometimes random thoughts of Buddy Hackett.  Disc two features all kinds of behind the scenes and making of features, including special effects.  What I found most interesting is that the features here cover all four of the original Herbie movies, which is a good thing since none of the other films have bonus features on them.

The Love Bug can be cheesy at times, but it still captures my heart every time I see it.  Today's kids will be just as captivated by the adventures of the one car that thinks for itself.

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