AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 106 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Howard is a duck who lives a happy life on his duck-populated planet, until he’s accidentally brought to Earth through a laser beam in an experiment being performed by a Cleveland physicist Dr. Walter Jenning. Howard finds himself in Cleveland and quickly finds his new home a strange and sometimes hostile place. When he rescues singer Beverly Switzer from a group of thugs, she becomes his only friend on Earth, and takes him to Phil Blumbart, who aided Walter in his work. Phil thinks he might be able to send Howard home, but both the police and an alien force stand in their way.…
I reviewed this much maligned film way back in the early days of HCF, but, what with the climax to the Marvel saga being in cinemas, and me treating myself to it on Blu-ray, I decided it was time to once again revisit this most curious of comic book movies, a film that, unless you count some feature length TV series pilots in the late ‘70s/ early ‘80s, is actually the first Marvel movie [though Howard has no superpowers and can’t even swim or fly like a proper duck], and see if I still really liked the thing. Well – of course I did. If you ask most people what is the best film that George Lucas was involved with, they will probably answer with one of the Star Wars films, usually The Empire Strikes Back. I’d probably go for Star Wars [sorry but I don’t go for this New Hope crap], but that’s still along the same lines. However, if someone was to ask me what was my favourite Lucas production, the one I most enjoy watching, I would have some trouble answering, because I wouldn’t be able to decide between Star Wars and Howard The Duck. Yet in a way this is a harder film to stick up for than some of the other guilty pleasures I’ve written about because I cannot deny that it really is poor in some respects. The attempt to adapt a comic series that was satirical and aimed at adults but still as a family feature resulted in something that just doesn’t know what it wants to be, it looks cheap for much of the time despite its large budget, its story seems pasted together, and – well – I could go on. However, it’s rife with that ‘80s charm, it has an odd, almost off the wall quality that for me personally gives it far more re-watch value than this cookie cutter Avengers stuff that packs them in these days [good to watch once, but that usually tends to be it for me I’m afraid], and – more than anything else – it’s funny. Often it’s more funny stupid or funny peculiar, but it’s still funny – well, to me anyway. If a film is absolutely guaranteed to cheer you up no matter what’s going on, then surely it’s of considerable value.
The comic books were written by Steve Gerber, and were very satirical, full of jabs at popular culture, and perhaps an odd basis for a film Lucas would be involved in, but never mind, Lucas was interested, and Universal Pictures, who’d passed on Star Wars, optioned it. Studio head Sidney Sheinberg supposedly lobbied very hard for the film to be made, but later denied any involvement in it, claiming that he’d never even read the screenplay. This script, written by previous Lucas collaborators Willard Huyck [who also directed] and Gloria Katz, made Howard a much more sympathetic, even cute, character and removed much of the adult nature of the comics, but not all of it. The duck suits were a nightmare and more had to be constantly made because many of them either lost feathers, exploded or were built with the wrong proportions, while some scenes were re-shot several times as technology improved. Actor Ed Gale, who played Howard most of the time, could only see out of the costumes when he opened his mouth. At the first screening for Universal’s executives, everyone left without a word, except for Sheinberg and his second in command Frank Price, who got into a fistfight over who was to blame for green-lighting the film. It was a huge flop and seemingly liked by nobody, and the fallout led to Price leaving Universal, Lucas publicly disowning the film and selling some of his company [which later became Pixar!], and the comics being canceled. The UK cinema version lost 46 seconds of a condom being shown and a tongue in a car cigarette lighter socket, though it’s still amazing how it got a ‘PG’. Although the cuts were fully restored in 2008 for the 12-rated Metrodome DVD, the same company reissued the film later in the year with a’ PG’ certificate with some different cuts, this time to the sauna and ‘Playduck’ scenes.
All I can say in response to all this is: “Did nobody in 1986 have a sense of humour”? Obviously that’s not true, as there were several successful comedies released that year, but Howard The Duck just needs to be approached in a silly frame of mind, and if it is, I reckon it’s really enjoyable. We open on Duckworld, which looks just like Earth but with two moons, with Howard relaxing in his house, and we are subject to a series of stupid duck-orientated puns, such as posters of films called ‘Splashduck’ and ‘Breeders Of The Lost Stork’. This does somewhat mislead viewers because we then see Howard opening out a magazine called- yes- ‘Playduck’ – to show us a topless centrefold [though I guess duck’s are naked in real life, aren’t they?], and then another topless female duck in the bath who looks suspiciously like she’s playing with herself. Straight away, you don’t know if this is a goofy film for young kids or a goofy film for adults, and, to be honest, I love it, as did my nine year old half brother when we watched a recording of it off TV, and I just thought it was a typical fun harmless science fiction adventure from Lucas – though I did know that it was thought to be rubbish and wondered why it was on late. Anyway, as a portentous voice-over inform us about the universe [it always reminds me of Superman’s dad] and something suspiciously resembling the 2001 obelisk transforms into the title, Howard is accidentally transported to Earth, and they did rather a good job of portraying it as a kind of nightmare world for a visitor, full of crumbling back streets, neon lightning and unwelcoming people including street gangs dressed like rejects from Batman Forever. Even as soon as he lands, Howard is carried into a nightclub, thrown [literally] out, and accosted by a bag lady and a ‘courting’ couple – though he does get to meet the lovely Beverly when he uses his ‘Quack-Fu’ to help her fight off two attackers.
The movie ambles along in a pleasant, leisurely manner for a while as an odd variant on the ‘fish out of water’ comedy. Of course the constant barrage of often juvenile puns and jokes continue, but I defy anyone not to chuckle during the scene where Phil, the boyfriend of one of Beverly’s band mates who claims he’s a scientist but is actually a cleaner, not knowing Howard can talk normally, tries to communicate with him via duck noises and “me Phil, you Howard”, whereupon Howard replies: “Obviously one of Earth’s greatest minds here”, and then when Phil asks Howard to read his mind and Howard says his mind is saying: “They know I’m a phony, they know I’m a yo-yo”. But Tim Robbins? – he’s totally ‘out there’ in this movie, employing lots of shrieks and bulging eyes to depict youthful scientific impetuousness. I can’t say it’s a good performance, maybe it’s terrible, but it’s sure fun to watch. For some of the time, the movie does seem like a dafter than normal family film, but then you have a bizarre scene where Howard is sent to work in a brothel full of people screwing [Howard: “it must be mating season]. It’s kind of cute when Howard and Beverly are intending to go on their merry ways but both are sheltering from the rain and can’t ignore each other, but then you get possibly the most perverse scene ever seen in a [formerly] ‘PG’ rated film, where Beverly tries to seduce Howard until fortunately they’re interrupted. Although of course there’s no actual on-screen sex between human and duck, I still can’t believe the nerve of the filmmakers here, especially goody two-shoes Lucas, though it seems that he wasn’t really involved much with things – mind you, saying that, some of the more juvenile humour is certainly typical of Lucas and haters could even say that Howard was a forerunner of Jar Jar Binks though I wouldn’t, he’s far too cool. And if released today it would more likely be Howard’s cigar smoking that would be censored first.
The special effects start to become more prominent and the film becomes something of a chase movie. It seems that a ‘laser spectroscope’ that was being tested was aimed at Howard’s planet and transported him to Earth when it was activated. Maybe Howard can be sent back to his world through a reversal of this same process, though the spectroscope malfunctions when it is activated, raising the possibility of something else being transported to Earth? At this point, Dr. Walter Jenning is possessed by an alien life form. The plot makes little sense and the film tends to go off on tangents, like Howard and Walter causing havoc in a diner [why do they want to cook and eat Howard?!] , and Howard and Phil ruining a duck hunt. There’s an inordinate amount of time devoted to Walter being possessed by an alien, which Jeffrey Jones acts with relish and somehow manages to be both funny and scary. The changes in his face are well done, alongside a rather gross moment that probably gave those few kids who were lucky enough to see this in cinemas nightmares, where a tentacle comes out of his mouth. Walter causes some havoc [John Landis was asked to direct but refused because the car stuff was too similar to The Blues Brothers], there’s an absolutely priceless, and very simple, comedic bit where Phil is handcuffed in a car and the door is locked, whereupon he just slides himself out the open car window, and it all ends up with Howard finding the most conveniently placed weapon ever and the classic pulp science fiction image of a hideous monster looming over a tied down woman is recreated. Effects are a mixed bag. The suits don’t allow for much expression and Howard neither looks nor acts much like an actual duck – he doesn’t even waddle. The scorpion-like monster at the climax looks quite impressive in terms of design with reasonable stop motion, but rarely looks like it’s actually there. The numerous explosions are well done, but I can’t totally understand where all the money went on this very expensive production.
Chip Zien’s voicing helps impart a fun, sardonic personality to Howard, while Lea Thompson does attempt to make her affection for this animal believable. But Huyck’s direction is kind of anonymous. The film could have benefited from a someone more in tune with the craziness of the material. I think that once he’d co-written the script once he ran out of inspiration. There is some nice lighting here and there such as Beverly’s apartment with its red and pink lighting. Composer John Barry said he did the movie because he wanted to work with Lucas, but he actually never met him. He came up with a great mock-heroic theme for Howard and some lovely slow jazz passages, though you could possibly say that he took the film too seriously, something the producers obviously thought as they replaced some later cues with lighter tracks by Sylvester Levay. But having a typically beautiful Barry love theme play several times just makes things more amusing. Meanwhile the story has to incorporate some songs performed live by Beverly and her girl rock band, which Lea Thompson actually sings [Tori Amos was asked to play her role, which would have made me love the film even more, though I don’t think her voice and style would have suited the songs], and rather well. The lyrics of the songs do actually correspond with the state of mind of Beverly at the time, and how can you not have the chorus of the final song going through your head after watching the film’s wonderfully cheesy, happy conclusion which ought to surely leave any watcher in a good mood? As gloriously, tackily ‘80s as many of the better known and liked efforts of its time [oddly enough the same year’s blockbuster Back To The Future, which also starred Thompson, hardly seems to date at all aside from the songs and lack of digital technology], Howard The Duck probably couldn’t be made now even if they wanted to. It’s misconceived, messy, stupid and even at times just plain wrong – but I’m turning all of those supposed negatives into positives and say that I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Rating: – though it would be much higher if I basing my rating purely on personal entertainment.