Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Cinematic Dregs: Howard the Duck

(1986) Directed by Willard Huyck; Written by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz; Starring: Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones and Tim Robbins; Available on DVD.

Rating: * ½

“It always looked like a midget in a duck suit.  You couldn’t get around it.” –Willard Huyck (from George Lucas – The Creative Impulse, by Charles Champlin)

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I figured it was the perfect time to spend some time with a turkey… or, should I say, turducken (sorry, I should be ashamed).

I recall walking with my older brother in Westwood Village (a popular movie watching spot in West Los Angeles), and pausing to take in a huge billboard for Howard the Duck.  A huge duck bill and cigar thrust outward from the sign with pathetic Freudian urgency.  While we regarded the none-too-subtle advertisement, I commented to him that the movie would be a bomb.

“How do you know?” he asked. 

“I just know.” I replied. 

I don’t think it was any prescient ability on my part; I just tapped into the general consensus that most film-goers reached – the world was not ready for a movie about a sentient duck.  Taking into account Howard the Duck’s infamous reputation, I never felt particularly compelled to see the movie.  In light of Disney’s recent acquisition of Lucasfilm, however, I felt the time was ripe to give this one a look from a new perspective.  Was this an unfairly maligned cult classic or a disaster?

Howard might have been “trapped in a world he never made,” as the taglines suggested, but we’re trapped along with him.  Howard the Duck got its start as a relatively obscure series of Marvel comics by Steve Gerber.  Producer George Lucas introduced screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (who worked with him on American Graffiti) to the comics as the possible basis for a movie project, and the rest is history.  What we got was nearly two hours of tedium as Howard stumbled through various misadventures on Earth.  Although I never read the original source material, it was by all accounts relatively subversive, with a high degree of pop culture savvy; presumably everything that the movie wasn’t.  The script relies on awful duck puns (i.e., “Book ‘em, ducko”), in the place of actual wit.*  Trust me, even if you enjoy puns, your tolerance will be stretched to the limit. 

*Yes, I’m aware of the inherent hypocrisy of this statement, considering my opening paragraph.

Probably the most damning aspect of Howard the Duck, besides the weak story and tepid dialogue, is the way Howard is brought to life.  The filmmakers originally conceived it as an animated film, but instead opted for practical effects, utilizing a duck suit and animatronics.  Huyck conceded that they were limited by the effects limitations of the time, never quite attaining the suspension of disbelief that comes from a successful melding of artistic talent.  Instead, we’re left scratching our heads as a guy runs around in a duck suit.  Howard was played by several actors, but notably Ed Gale, who does his best with what he’s given.   

The human leads in Howard the Duck don’t fare much better than their avian counterpart.  Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson), lead singer of the group Cherry Bomb, is Howard’s nominal love interest (yep, you’ve read that right).  There’s a sublime moment of unintentional horror when Beverly discovers a condom in Howard’s wallet.  The story reaches a nadir in the subsequent scene, when Howard and Beverly almost consummate their shared affections, coming awfully close to bestiality (not the sort of thing that usually turns up in a family flick).

Tim Robbins is wasted as goofball lab assistant Phil Blumburtt who helps Howard.  There’s an implied love triangle going on, but we can’t be too sure, since his character doesn’t display much in the way of ambivalence toward Howard.  He’s obviously (at least by the logic of this flick) a rival for her affections, but by the film’s conclusion, you’re still not exactly sure what Phil and Beverly’s relationship is.

The John Barry score is better than the movie deserves, lending an almost James Bond-like flair to the action.  The synth pop songs by composer Thomas Dolby are mostly forgettable, with the exception of the title track (co-penned by George Clinton), which will embed itself in your brain like a Naegleria fowleri.  Consider yourself warned. 

To paraphrase another Lucas movie, if there’s a bright spot in the universe, Howard the Duck is probably the farthest from it, but there’s one highlight worth mentioning – the stop-motion animation by effects wizard Phil Tippett.  His creation, an evil galactic overlord, looks a bit like a cross between a scorpion and Cthulu, and would have made Ray Harryhausen proud.  Unfortunately, its appearance towards the end of the film does nothing to erase the pain of the previous 90 or so minutes.  If you’re still inclined to check it out, you’re probably better off watching the clip on You Tube.

There. I’ve saved you the anguish of watching the rest of the flick. 
  You can thank me later.

I can’t help but imagine that someone could actually make a Howard the Duck movie work, but it would require a completely different approach.  It’s doubtful, however, that Disney (which coincidentally owns the rights to the Marvel catalog) would likely greenlight a sequel or remake (animated or otherwise) anytime soon.  As a result, we’re left with this $35 million example of lowest common denominator filmmaking.


  1. I still remember when it came out and no one knew what the Hell the movie would be... and then they went and saw it... and no one knew what the Hell they just watched.

    That this movie even exists, is still a bizarre fact of life. Hyuck should have stuck to writing stuff like "Temple of Doom", or even, as much as I hate having enjoyed it, "Messiah of Evil".

    One nutty ride.

  2. One nutty ride, indeed!

    Hmmm... I haven't heard of "Messiah of Evil." Sounds like it might be worth checking out. :)

  3. When this movie came out to theates. I loved it. I bought the soundtrack and the picture books everything. Watching it again. I'm surprised my parents let me watch this movie. I still agree with everything you said in this review. It is horrible. Had no idea that this was going to be an animated movie at first. That would have been cool to see, maybe.

  4. I wonder if Lucas is more ashamed of this one, or the Star Wars Holiday Special?

    I can definitely see how Howard the Duck could be considered "so bad it's good," but for me it was just annoying. I wonder what my reaction would have been as a kid? Oh well...

  5. Yeah, Howard the Duck -- I have seen this a while ago, don't recall too much about it though. I have to confess the source which inspired the film, i.e. the comic, went a little over my head. The -humour-, I'm assuming that an anthropomorphic duck in a world populated with villains modelled on such characters as chartered accountants, is intended as humorous, was a touch flat. It got better I'm told as the writer exercised his talents towards the surreal, rather than his meagre facility for mirth. Unfortunately, Disney pulled the plug and by that time, the creator had been edged out of the running by Marvel anyway, leaving poor Howard in limbo. Recently however, I have revisited Howard and while I'm still scratching my head, as a character he does have potential.

    1. Howard the Duck is a perfect example of Hollywood starting with edgy material and entirely missing the point. The focus was on creating a (mostly) family-friendly franchise, rather than a stand-alone satire. It's interesting to speculate what could have been if the material had been handled by more capable filmmakers.