Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Films of 1986: Howard the Duck

In 1986, the comic-book adaptation Howard the Duck -- executive-produced by George Lucas -- landed in movie theaters with a splat. 

The fantasy film cost thirty-seven million dollars to produce (some sources report a budget as high as 52 million, however…), and barely made back its budget.

Meanwhile, audiences and critics hated the film from director Willard Huyck and writer Gloria Katz.

So much so, in fact, that the words “Howard the Duck” became synonymous with the term “Hollywood movie fiasco” (at least until Waterworld came out, in 1995).

It shouldn’t have been that way. 

Not because the 1986 movie is good.

It isn’t.

But because the source material, a Marvel Comic created by Steve Gerber in 1973, was beloved, inventive, and off-beat. In other words, Howard the Duck was the perfect fodder for cult-movie immortality in the age of non-conventional efforts such as Buckaroo Banzai (1984) or Big Trouble in Little China (1986). 

Thus Howard the Duck may still not have found favor as a mainstream audience attraction had it been a good movie, but it would have likely found a secondary half-life as a beloved movie, at least from cine-philes and aficionados of the comic.

Instead -- as is so often the case in comic-book movie adaptations -- too much got lost in translation to the screen.

Howard the Duck’s deficits are much too easy to rattle off, today. 

First and foremost, the film never decides on its audience.  Is it a toothless slapstick comedy made for kids?  If so, it is dull for long stretches of time, and not particularly amusing. 

Is it an adult social satire with scatological humor and sexual situations?  If not, the scene in which Beverly (Lea Thompson) extracts a duck condom from Howard’s wallet sticks out like a sore thumb.

Is the movie an adventure? A relationship drama? A fish-out-of-water story? A social commentary on human existence with a nihilistic bent?

Indeed, there are moments which qualify the film as all of the above. As Richard Corliss aptly reported, in Time Magazine, Howard the Duck is “too scuzzy to beguile children” and “too infantile” to appeal to their parents.

Even though Howard the Duck never finds a consistent tone and sticks with it, it might have succeeded had its central character not been such a letdown in terms of his portrayal.  The cinematic Howard is earnest and mopey, and a far cry from the cynical, caustic, cigar-chomping character of the comic-books. 

Worse, Howard -- as devised by the filmmakers -- is largely inexpressive.  At the Chicago Tribune, Dave Kehr described the visualization of the title character and noted that “the disappointment is devastating.”  He went on to call Howard “A small person…in a latex rubber suit pasted over with feathers.”

His observation is right on the money. There is no life to this version of Howard.

Memorably, the tag-line for the Howard the Duck comic was “Trapped in a world he never made!”  The tag-line for the movie should have been, Trapped in a Movie That Doesn’t Know Who He is. 

Howard the Duck’s greatest deficit, in the scheme of things, is that the film successfully making an alien, talking duck an utterly dull and uninteresting character.  This Howard is a drag.

“No More Mr. Nice Duck.”

A highly intelligent duck, Howard, from Duck World, is unexpectedly dragged from his distant planet to Earth, and Cleveland. 

There, Howard befriends rock-and-roller Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson) from the band Cherry Bomb, and hopes to find a way home.

He learns from Beverly’s friend Phil Blumbert (Tim Robbins) that a scientist, Dr. Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) was conducting an experiment the night he was transported, involving a giant laser and a process of “energy inversion.”

Howard hopes that by repeating the experiment, he will be able to return to Duck World.  Instead, Dr. Jenning accidentally pulls something monstrous from the Nexus of Sominus: A Dark Overlord of the Universe.  This monstrous creature inhabits Jenning’s body and wants to use the laser to bring more of his people to Earth.

When Beverly is captured by the Dark Overlord, Howard must make a choice. He can rescue Beverly and save the world, but by destroying the laser, he will be trapped on Earth permanently.

“You think I might find happiness in the animal kingdom?”

In his comic-book form, Howard the Duck was born one “hard-boiled egg,” to quote a funny line in the movie. He was an attitudinal, cynical duck who, based on his very appearance, seemed to be a twisted version of cartoon ducks throughout animation history. More than that, the comic-book version of Howard functioned as the ultimate outsider, able to comment sensibly on human beings (“talking apes” in Howard’s parlance) without, necessarily, sympathy or affection.

His cinematic counterpart, by comparison, has no edge whatsoever. Howard is voiced by Chip Zien, and whether it is a flaw in his characterization or in the writing of the character, he comes across as woefully milquetoast.

Almost none of his jokes stick the landing land, and that fact, coupled with the underwhelming visual presentation of the character, gives Howard all the charm and charisma of a wet blanket. Total Film, in 2009, latched onto the problem: “…he’s portrayed as a sweet innocent with gooey eyes and a squeaky voice (which manages to neuter the vitriol in even the more sassy lines.)”

I would argue that Howard the Duck exists for the vitriol. Take it away, and he has no purpose, and no reason to exist.

It’s clear that there’s a schizophrenic quality to Howard and his film.  At times he is supposed to be a lost, cute creature (think: E.T. The Extra Terrestrial [1982]) and at other times he is supposed to be an adult, agent provocateur (think of his relationship with a human woman).  It’s bewildering that the script never decides how it feels about Howard, or, finally, even the specifics of Howard’s identity. Is he an adult? An avatar for a child? A sex object?

I suppose Howard the Duck has gotten a bit of a bum rap in terms of its visualizations. The special effects are of their time, the mid-1980s, but nonetheless quite good.  The set-piece involving the Dark Overlord and Howard in a diner is probably the film’s best, at least in terms of pacing, effects and impact. 

And Jeffrey Jones certainly makes the most of his villainous character, mining every possible moment for twisted humor.  I also admire the stop-motion Dark Overlords that appear in the climax.  They are absurd, Lovecraftian beasts that feel like they belong in the same world as Howard of the comics.

Sometimes, when a film goes so far astray, it’s difficult to enumerate all the misfires.  I suppose one more criticism here, and hopefully a pertinent one is that the film mistakes pace, or velocity, for humor.  The film is frenetic and fast-paced, and everybody always seems to be running and screaming from location-to-location, set-piece to set-piece. 

To stand still, I suppose, would be to acknowledge that the film has no idea of its center.  Howard the Duck is thus loud, but rarely funny; save for those moments when the Dark Overlord is on-screen and making mischief.

“Every duck has his limits,” according to Howard, and I guess that goes for movie critics too.  I am always up for a re-evaluation of a critically-disdained cult movie, or a rehabilitation, even, of its reputation, if one is merited.

But Howard the Duck is sidelined by a colorless script, an eminently forgettable title character, a lack of bite, and even a lack of laughs.  This is a movie that has no idea what it wants to be.  One minute, it’s E.T.  The next it wants to be Ghostbusters. In the shuffle to find material to ape, Howard the Duck misses the comic book characters anarchic spirit.

Poor Howard, he’s right about something in this movie.  At least so far as this film is concerned, nobody laughs at the master of Quack Fu.


  1. Anonymous10:36 AM

    I was a big fan of this movie for different reasons.

    (Flashback to late 1980s, me watching "Howard the Duck" on VHS)

    Sister: You rented this again? This is a terrible movie!

    Me: Hey, I like it.

    (rewinds Lea Thompson's underwear scene again)

  2. Ouch.

    One of the reasons I read you is because you so earnestly attempt to find the gold even in the worst trash. It's pretty unusual for you to have a review like this.

    1. Raito,

      My goodness, I agree. I re-watched this for a 30th anniversary "rehabilitation" or re-think, and then found, to my horror, that there was precious little to re-think. I kept looking for bright spots, and the only ones I could find (and which I noted) involved the Dark Overlord.

      I wish I had found something to really champion, here.

  3. I watched this in the theaters when it came out. I was 13 years old and it was the first movie I saw that I absolutely LOATHED. I hated everything about it, even the parts that I had no idea how to understand yet! It truly was a traumatic viewing experience.

  4. Amazing in how of 10 seconds or so of screentime in Guardians of the Galaxy, they got Howard so right, where a feature length film got him so wrong.

  5. John,
    I remember taking a couple of friends to see this film when it first came out. I had really enjoyed the few Howard the Duck comic books I'd read, and convinced them that it would be great. I fully imagined that Howard would be realized as a sophisticated puppet or some other special effect. Imagine my shock when he turned out to be a little person in a duck suit.
    My friends never let me live that down, and vowed never to see another movie with me again. I couldn't blame them, really. A movie about a duck that was a great big turkey.
    I recall that, in their review of Howard the Duck, Siskel and Ebert called out both Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (director and co-writers, respectively) by name. Siskel even went as far as to say that neither Huyck or Katz should ever write a film screenplay again.
    As for good points, I'll just refer you to the prior comment by Anonymous...that scene with Lea Thompson was worth whatever I paid to see that movie in 1986. If nothing else, at least they got that part right.

  6. It's the first Marvel movie that got me into the comics. I quickly became a fan of the movie, the comics, and Lea Thompson most of all.