Director: Robert Stevenson
Writer: Bill Walsh, Don DaGradi
Producer: Bill Walsh
Composer: George Bruns
Production Companies: Walt Disney Productions presents
Principal Cast: Dean Jones, Michele Lee, David Tomlinson, Buddy Hackett, Joe Flynn, Benson Fong, Andy Granatelli, Joe E. Ross, Iris Adrian, Ned Glass
The first in one of Disney’s best-loved live-action franchises, The Love Bug is the sort of affable lightweight fluff that the studio was doing so well at the time, a classic tale of the underdog overcoming all the odds. Chock full of allusions to the social climate of the day (a cop believes his comrade has been working the Haight-Ashbury beat too long, comedy hippies abound and the comedy sidekick has not long been back from a Zen voyage of self-discovery), The Love Bug is something of a museum piece now but remains more fun than many might be willing to admit to.
The human stars are mostly eclipsed by the loveable Herbie, but it’s a fine cast nonetheless, full of faces already familiar from the Disney live action comedies. Dean Jones, Disney’s leading man of choice throughout the 60s and 70s, is great value as the egotistical and almost washed-up racing driver who falls under the Love Bug’s spell and is capably supported by Michele Lee (a decade from her leading role in Knot’s Landing (1979-1993)) as the obligatory love interest and the usually annoying Buddy Hackett as the boss-eyed, philosophical best friend/mechanic. But the human acting honours go to the always wonderful David Tomlinson as nasty piece of work Peter Thorndyke, turning in the sort of smooth and eminently hissable villainy that we all remember these live action 60s Disney films for.
But the real star of course is the little VW Beetle with a mind of its own. Herbie was an instant hit and continued to enthrall the kids in a series of sequels and spin-offs. For what Jones’ leading man dismissively describes as just a collection of nuts and bolts, “he’s” quite a charismatic little fellow, getting ‘drunk’ and attempting suicide, playing the screen’s least likely cupid and performing all manner of increasingly unlikely stunts and tricks as the climactic race becomes more heated and frenetic.
Disney entrusted The Love Bug to director Robert Stevenson who, with writers Samuel W. Taylor and Bill Walsh (who also had a hand in The Love Bug‘s script) had established the formula from which many of the studio’s non-animated films would be drawn as far back as The Absent Minded Professor in 1961. The Love Bug was hardly a challenge for the director but he knew when to let Herbie take the limelight and his comic timing was second to none.
The big finale, a seat-of-your-pants road race dominated by Herbie and the appallingly horrible Thorndyke (surely an inspiration for the equally lamentable Dick Dastardly in TV’s The Wacky Races (1968) which debuted six months after The Love Bug was released) has most of the film’s most memorable set-pieces but does tend to go on a bit. Indeed at 108 minutes the film feels slightly over-stretched and could have done with some trimming.
The Love Bug was a huge success for Disney and though it looks and sounds somewhat quaint today, it’s charms are still obvious and there’s still much to enjoy. The first sequel, Herbie Rides Again (1974), is even better though the law of diminishing returns soon set in and the remaining sequels, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977) and Herbie Goes Bananas (1980) are less impressive. A dreadful TV show followed in 1982, Herbie the Love Bug before Bruce Campbell, of all people, took over from Dean Jones in a first remake, the made-for-TV The Love Bug (1997). A big screen remake, Herbie Fully Loaded (2005) came and went without troubling the box office too much. The original, as is often the way of such things, remains the best.