Pete (Stephen W. Burns) and D.J. (Charles Martin Smith) have shown up in Central America to pick up a car there given to Pete by his uncle. Being involved in the racing business, they hope to drive to victory in Rio, and in the car in question, but before they even get to the garage where it's kept they hit a snag when a little kid (Joaquin Garay III) steals D.J.'s wallet after pretending to help them. They only discover this when they are at the garage, and seeing the vehicle is an apparently unassuming Volkswagen Beetle they wonder if their luck has truly run out...
Herbie Goes Bananas was the fourth in the series, and the least loved with even the fans of the franchise tending to reject this one as a bastardisation of the concept. If you're not quite as bothered about that, what you had on offer was a mediocre but hectic affair where Herbie was barely called by his name - the kid, Paco, calls him Ocho but Pete and D.J. don't call him anything - and suffered a hefty degree of indignity into the bargain. As usual with Disney casts, there was a curious assembly of stars and recognisable faces, with the villains played by the unlikely trio of John Vernon, Richard Jaeckel and Alex Rocco.
What they want is the photographic film that was inside the wallet (a different wallet) which Paco has stolen from them, a MacGuffin which contains the exact location of an Inca treasure, which turns out to resemble a manhole cover painted gold. Anyway, as they pursue the kid, he ends up inside Herbie as the car is taken aboard a cruise liner heading for Panama, and being the mischievous sort that he is, fully endorses Paco's petty criminality. That might be part of the reason the fans took against it, as in the previous instalment Herb was acting out of mad, passionate love, but this time around his little friend doesn't really seem worth all the fuss, and there is a lot of fuss.
To complicate matters, and looking as if the producers were packing as many stars into the film as possible, onboard the ship we meet Cloris Leachman as Aunt Louise, who is travelling with her niece Melissa (Elyssa Davalos), a bookworm who is on the trip to advance her studies - and take off her glasses to reveal herself to be beautiful, naturally. Best of all is the Captain, played by Harvey Korman (was the casting director a fan of Mel Brooks movies?), who actually wrings a few laughs out of the mild material, mostly due to his yearning to be helming a craft from two centuries ago so he could keel haul anyone he wanted: his dinner conversation is absurdly bloodthirsty. Unfortunately, when Herbie contrives to assist Paco in nicking Vito Scotti's dinner, it leads to tragedy.
Well, not tragedy exactly, but it's weirdly alarming to see the VW forced to walk the plank for his wrongdoings, except he's not so much walking as upside down and slid from the plank. The fact that they really did dump a Herbie in the ocean, and it will still be there should you care to dive down and look, was oddly unsettling, and displayed a callous attitude not quite in keeping with the supposedly benevolent fun you should have been watching. Herbie does swim to safety of course, but his humiliation is not over as he spends the rest of the film absolutely filthy, and then to add insult to injury gets painted by Paco with the word "TAXI" and cartoon flowers all over. Add in a bullfight (don't worry, they don't go as far as having the car kill a bull) straight out of a Looney Tunes effort, but not as funny, and going bananas was uppermost on the filmmakers' minds, but didn't translate the zaniness to the audience; you just watch it, stuff happens, then it's over. Music by Frank De Vol (with sad version of the theme).