Perhaps not one for the ages, but a key film for this writer; back in 1974, Herbie Rides Again was the first film I ever saw at the cinema. These days, as I settle down to view the violent provocations of today’s art-film auteurs, my mind sometimes drifts back to where my love of cinema began. Like many kids, it started with Disney, but it also started with a sequel to a film I hadn’t actually seen; when you’re a nipper, that’s not a problem, because the car’s the star here. If Kenneth Branagh can dedicate a stretch of Belfast to his enjoyment of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, then Herbie deserves a mention in dispatches too.
Previously established in 1969’s The Love Bug, Herbie is a car with a mind of his own. Robert Stevenson’s film does indeed speak of a specific time and place; this is flower-power mid-70’s San Francisco, peopled with long-haired counter-cultural hippies, and Grandma (Helen Hayes) is rather out of place. She’s living in an old firehouse with Herbie, her neighbour Nicole (a well-turned out Stefanie Powers) and two other machines with personalities; a giant mechanical organ and a streetcar named No22. Grandma has a notion in her head that all things have spirits, a notion of animism also seen in films as diverse as Chunking Express or the Studio Ghibli films, but few have as much to say for themselves as Herbie, who is personable enough to rescue Grandma from all kinds of dangers along with a burst of safari music on the soundtrack.
Not all the nuances of Herbie Rides Again were clear to me in 1974. The central plot deals with a subject sure to thrill kiddies; property development. Indeed, the first ten minutes of Herbie Rides Again are nothing but men discussing property development, with not even a mention of the cute little car. Veteran Keenan Wynn chews the scenery in enjoyable style as corrupt magnate Alonzo Hawk, and it makes sense within the thematic rules here that he takes such glee in demolishing lovely old buildings; Grandma knows that everything has a soul, but it’s a lesson that such a rich man consumed by greed cannot fathom. Talking cars are not unknown in cinema, with the fleet of animated authomobiles in Leos Carax’s thematically similar Holy Motors springing to mind, but Herbie is clearly on a mission to educate us about the spiritual value of every imaginable thing.
Although the blue-screen work is awful, and some of the stunts less than special, what worked in Herbie Rides Again for me was that you can believe that Herbie is the central character; the romance and storyline are just a pretext for Herbie running rings around everyone, and some of the physical effects are ingenious. The 70’s and 80’s were an unhappy time for Disney, struggling to find a corporate identity in their work, but while perhaps not essential viewing for today’s kids, films like this are a nice slice of nostalgia; good, clean, harmless fun.