Those obsessed with the meta nature of Disney films will be happy to know that Herbie Rides Again connects this series of films with the Medfield films, as Keenan Wynn brings his villainous Alonzo Hawk against our beloved VW bug (Hawk also appears in The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber, which take place at Medfield College, as do all of the Dexter Reilly films (The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes; Now You See Him, Now You Don’t and The Strongest Man in the World) and The Shaggy D.A.
Hawk is both a real estate magnate and demolition baron, which is a pretty amazing career path, and he wants to build a mall but “Grandma” Steinmetz (Helen Hayes**!) is standing in his way, as she owns a historical firehouse. She’s also the aunt of Buddy Hackett’s Tennessee Steinmetz*, who doesn’t appear in this movie, so the heroes become Willoughby Whitfield (Ken Berry) and Nicole Harris (Stefanie Powers).
Willoughby is really Hawk’s nephew, but once he learns how horrible the man is — and the chance to get with Stefanie Powers*** as the result will sour anyone on any relative — he helps her save the firehouse, which also has a sentient train car living there.
There’s a lot of comedy made at the bad guy’s expense for being irrationally afraid of Herbie. Look, no one laughs at everyone Christine menaces. I’d like to think that we’re all the heroes of our own stories, so I imagine that Hawk has no idea why this possessed German automobile wants to get him so badly. You can imagine how terrifying a little car constantly honking at you can be. Then again, Hawk did build a parking garage on the field where Joe DiMaggio and his brothers learned how to play ball.
The real evil here may be the Disney publicity department. They worked with Volkswagen to promote the sequel, as every dealer was given posters and a Herbie Bug to display. Even weirder, if a customer wanted to turn their new Beetle into a Herbie, they could buy a custom graphics kit from the VW parts department. Who were these maniacs?
*Tennessee is in Tibet helping his sick philosophy teacher, while Herbie’s former owner Jim Douglas has proved what we knew all along. He didn’t care about the Love Bug at all and has gone to Europe to race other cars.
**She’s also in Disney’s Candleshoe and One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing.
**I would murder most of my extended family up until third cousins for the opportunity to sip sweet tea with 1974 Stefanie Powers.