For some reason I wound up watching The Love Bug the other day. Oh, well, actually, I know the reason: I love that picture. In some ways it's still the closest anyone has come to making a true live-action cartoon movie. Frank Tashlin's movies are wilder and generally better, but they usually have just a few cartoony gags in the midst of other types of comedy. Recent movies like The Mask have more elaborate special effects, but, quite apart from questions of how good they are, the use of CGI effects means that they sort of are cartoons, period. But large portions of The Love Bug just feel like a cartoon with real people; indeed, gags like David Tomlinson's head winding up inside a glove compartment, or various cars zooming to and fro inside a mineshaft, are nuttier, funnier and faster than almost anything in Walt Disney's actual animated cartoons. Even the ethnic stereotyping of the Chinese characters feels more "cartoony" than offensive; besides, the Benson Fong character has one of the best lines, when he pronounces that Herbie has "Strength of forty horses."
The movie, which was produced by Disney's favorite live-action writer, Bill Walsh (more about him here) and written by Walsh and writer/storyboardist Don DaGradi, should also get some credit for being one of the few movies of the late '60s that actually incorporated elements of late '60s culture without looking embarrassing. Usually there's nothing worse than established Hollywood studio filmmakers trying to "go hippie"; this is what led to such notable eye-gougers as Otto Preminger's Skidoo. But The Love Bug has love beads, Buddhist philosophy, hippies, Haight-Asbury references, and a generally oh-so-'60s message where anti-materialist youth triumphs over materialistic unimaginative guys over 30 -- and somehow it doesn't make you want to retch. It helps that most of the Buddhist philosophy comes from Buddy Hackett and the most notable hippie is played by Dean Jones in disguise: "We all prisoners, chickie-baby. We all locked in."
The movie would be better if it had a finale that really followed up on the themes Walsh sets up in the first hour or so -- the slightly jerky hero who is redeemed by becoming a sort of surrogate father to a magical, childlike car. As the picture is set up, the hero repents of his jerky ways about an hour into the story, and the entire last half-hour is just a straightforward wacky car chase with lots of (funny) cartoony gags; but the end of that is a foregone conclusion, and the story has lost its momentum because it redeems Dean Jones too early. Whereas Walsh and DaGradi's (and director Robert Stevenson's) Mary Poppins, which had far less plot and was much longer, sustains its story interest right to the end, because the end of the picture is the redemption of George Banks (the real protagonist of that movie). Walsh's stuff was leagues better than anything else produced at Disney after Walt died, including the animated movies, but it does seem that without Disney around, his lieutenants were starting to forget how to construct an emotional arc so it lasts for the whole movie, rather than abandoning it in favor of wacky gags. The second Herbie movie, Herbie Rides Again, also written by Walsh and directed by Stevenson, is really little more than wacky gags, though most of them are pretty good. The other two Herbie movies were made after Walsh's death and are not worth discussing.
I think the main thing you remember about The Love Bug, though, is Peter Ellenshaw's matte work. His stylized paintings of San Francisco are so gorgeous that the scenes actually shot in San Francisco suffer by comparison; why bother with the drabness of the real thing when you can get Peter Ellenshaw to create a beautiful, imaginative new version of it?