It’s all relative. Another Love Bug movie doesn’t sound so terrible considering Disney’s just announced a superhero flick based on the “Underdog” cartoon — using a real dog.
With such a debacle in the making, “Herbie: Fully Loaded” is a harmless bit of roadside litter by comparison, offering a few cute moments with the plucky Volkswagen Beetle and a fresh dollop of slapstick for children unfamiliar with 1969’s “The Love Bug” and its sequels.
“Herbie” is made to order for families seeking something utterly wholesome for the entire clan, the Disney goodness slathered on like Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread.
And if the Disney brand name and Herbie’s No. 53 aren’t seal-of-approval enough, the movie stars the studio’s remake queen, Lindsay Lohan, in her third update after “The Parent Trap” and “Freaky Friday.”
The movie is as much an anachronism as a 1963 VW Bug still cruising the highways. It has not a trace of the irreverence or mild toilet humor common to family films today.
It’s as though Herbie made a beeline from the ’60s straight to the 21st century, with all his tapioca sweetness intact. In Herbie’s world, a few people are bad, most are nice and a handful are extra-super nice. And in the end, you know the little car with a mind of his own will sort them out.
Among the extra-super nice are Lohan’s Maggie Peyton, who comes from a proud line of NASCAR racers including her dad, widower Ray Sr. (Michael Keaton) and brother Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer).
A former street racer herself, Maggie’s been banned from automotive sports by her worried father because of a nasty encounter her car once had with a tree. For college graduation, though, Ray Sr. does agree to buy her new wheels, and can-do guy that he is, he takes Maggie to the junkyard to pick out a diamond in the rough.
There, Maggie discovers Herbie, or rather the car manipulates her into taking him home. The movie opens with a clever montage detailing the white Beetle’s amazing race prowess and his slow decline to lowly rustbucket bound for the car crusher.
Once Herbie gets his clutches into Maggie, she and childhood mechanic pal Kevin (Justin Long) fix up the car and learn of its seemingly demonic ability to drive itself at amazing speeds, pop wheelies and cruise on its hind wheels, squirt oil in people’s faces and bonk them on the head with its trunk lid.
The sight gags are terribly ordinary and grow repetitive, but director Angela Robinson — coming off the low-budget girl-power tale “D.E.B.S.” — revs the action up so briskly that “Herbie” cruises by at a fairly painless clip.
Through Herbie’s machinations, Maggie winds up beating vainglorious NASCAR king Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) in an impromptu street race. Trip becomes obsessed with driving the Beetle into the ground, leading Herbie to a desert rematch, a demolition derby and an eventual showdown in a major NASCAR race.
Lohan is at her most perky and least bratty, which makes her less interesting than the schemers and whiners she played in “Freaky Friday” and “Mean Girls.” But humans really take a backseat to Herbie, who deserved top billing.
Keaton clearly just wants to work these days. He makes a decent father figure, though it’s fun to imagine him veering into old manic-madman ways and turning the Disney formula on its head, say in a hybrid sequel, “Beetle Juice 2: Herbie Goes to Hell.”
“Herbie: Fully Loaded” is about as forgettable as most of the previous “Love Bug” sequels. It’s hard to imagine today’s children looking back with fond nostalgia on this movie the way their parents do on the Dean Jones original, but the movie’s simple, steady, straight-ahead motion should keep them from squirming in their seats and screaming, “Are we there yet?”