The last production Walt Disney greenlit, The Love Bug was the perfect movie to help audiences sit down and tune out during the chaotic year of 1968. The story of a little bug with a spunky personality perservering against the wealthy corporate drudge is a tale as old as time…but those other movies lack a car named Herbie. The first of the Herbie movies is a fun little tale even if it lacks the punch of other Disney classics before or after.
Jim Douglas (Dean Jones) is a race car driver past his prime. When he becomes the owner of a Volkswagen bug named Herbie, Jim is poised to become the driver he believes he is.
The Love Bug’s pedigree contains the best Disney had to offer in 1968: Mary Poppins director Robert Stevenson, Poppins scribe Don DaGradi, and Poppins co-star David Tomlinson. Stevenson and DaGradi worked on other pictures post-Mary and her magical carpetbag, but they were obviously riding the wave towards Disney’s next franchise. The Love Bug was the first of six Herbie the Love Bug features and feels like the beginning of a larger story where the title character is prominently featured despite a lack of pronounceable characteristics. I’m sure as the later sequels developed Herbie, and his human companions, gained a wider swath of traits to round them out.
It’s hard for a movie to personify inanimate objects without inserting goofy facial characteristics or, even worse, a moving mouth and dialogue. For all of Disney’s strengths in the past, doing just that with various objects, they ground Herbie in some type of reality. The little Bug isn’t given dialogue or features short of his headlamps being eyes, and even then it’s just because they’re circular and in the front. (Later features would play up the headlights as eyes more.) The audience is aware he’s a car, yet it’s hard not to believe he’s a living character, a testament to the script and mechanical work of the stunt car. His leaking fluid on characters he hates and dragging Jim and friends around creates a colorful personality far more entertaining than the human characters you’re supposed to root for. I was, however, surprised that the title The Love Bug fails to pay off as much as you’re led to believe. Herbie plays Cupid in a way, getting Jim and Carole (Michele Lee) together, but it’s through nothing more than taking them on one date. The sheer story with Herbie and Jim brings the duo together, but you’re so focused on Herbie that Jim and Carole’s relationship is irrelevant.
There’s a lot of incidental plotlines and situations paying off little or not at all. The romance is one element, and there’s a lot of wheeling and dealing with the car and its owners that becomes repetitive by the end. For a feature clocking in at 108-minutes, The Love Bug overstays its welcome a bit by the end. The film is set in San Francisco, a location Disney’s loved during this time period and later (see The Princess Diaries), and there’s some wonderful cinematography employed highlighting the city. Look at when Jim and the car go down Lombard Street, or, more dramatically (and hilariously) when Herbie tries to throw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge, as some of the movie’s best sequences highlighting the beauty of the city during a time when it was coming into its own. And it wouldn’t be a movie set in the late 1960s without hippies and references to San Francisco’s rising drug culture (a cop makes a passing reference to Haight-Ashbury). There are several instances where this movie isn’t as PC as the Disney of today, both sad and funny to watch.
Herbie is the Charles Atlas of the car world, especially when compared to Peter Thorndyke’s (Tomlinson) beautiful Apollo GT. (I’m a car girl and the Apollo in this movie is EXQUISITE! The private collector who owns this is lucky.) Speaking of Tomlinson, he’s another colorful character you can’t help but enjoy. Tomlinson, as the snooty Thornkdyke, channels Mr. Banks, but with an added veneer of scheming leaving you with a smile on your face. Herbie becomes a child of divorce, torn between two people just selfish enough to miss the bigger picture. Dean Jones is decent as the milquetoast Jim Douglas, although I can’t help but wonder how the character would play younger or older than Jones himself. Jones inhabits a liminal stage, looking too old to be a petulant child obsessed with a dream he might never achieve (every time Jim mentions “I want to be a race car driver” I imagined some young kid desperate to become a rock star), and too young to pull off a rough and tumble guy too old to acclimate to how racing’s changed. Jones and Lee are incidental to the plot and provide the requisite love story. Buddy Hackett, returning to the blog after the lackluster Bud & Lou, is the one who should have been in the driver’s seat. His character, Tennessee is in tune to Herbie and bonds deeply with the car in contrast to Jim.
The Love Bug is a pleasing children’s film that’ll attract families and car lovers. The plot is thin and the other human characters pale compared to the dynamic Herbie. Disney knew the potential of a franchise and if any movie deserved additional films it’s this one.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.