Looking Back: Howard the Duck (1986)

My first encounter with Howard the Duck was, appropriately enough, in a pet store. While my Dad was looking for new additions to his massive aquarium, I found a crate of comic books, selling for less than a dollar each. Of the many rumpled comics jammed together, I was drawn to the second issue of “Howard the Duck”, in which a talking wiseacre water fowl (who was “trapped in a world he never made”) was batting the intergalactic Space Turnip. It was introduction to a lifelong love for the comic book, my favorite character in the entire Marvel universe.

A few months later, my latest issue of Bantha Tracks, the Lucasfilm Fan Club newsletter, arrived in the mail. The front page announced that George Lucas was producing a film adaptation of “Howard the Duck,” his first major film project since “Return of the Jedi.” Subsequent issues provided further behind the scenes info and, month by month, wetted my appetite for what looked like the biggest movie of the year. No joke, even in a summer that included “The Karate Kid Part II,” “Aliens” and “Top Gun,” the growing hype over “Howard the Duck” was hard to miss. With imagery of the title character kept top secret until opening day, Lucas’ name all over the promotional materials and a then-massive, $40 million budget, Howard looked to make as big a splash as “Superman-The Movie”. Then it opened.

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This is the movie where a dreamy Lea Thompson plays Beverly Switzler, the big-haired lead rock singer of “Cherry Bomb” (no doubt a reference to The Runaways). Switzler falls in love with Howard, a talking duck who she meets in an alley, where he saves her from being raped by thugs. Thankfully, in addition to speaking English, Howard is also “a Master of Quack Fu” and dispatches Beverly’s attackers. The two then live together and form a flirtatious romance (in the comic book, it goes all the way, but I digress). Beverly’s kind-of pal, Phil (Tim Robbins), is a scientist who wants to exploit Howard more than return him to his home planet. There’s also Dr. Jennings (Jeffrey Jones, who played Principal Rooney in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”)

Things feel off from the first frame. The cleverly constructed indoor and exterior views of “Duck World” are set to John Barry’s lush, romantic score, which is, note for note, utterly wrong for this movie. Barry was coming off of “Out of Africa,” was clearly a big name composer for this high profile project but his jazzy, film noir-lite score sets a wrong tone. Everything else is off kilter: the sense of scale is enormous but the story wants to be intimate (at first). The comedy alternates between broad and wry, satirical and slapsticky, self referential and painfully juvenile. Just when it feels like the movie is settling for an awkward, character-driven sci-fi romantic comedy (!), it switches gears again.

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The promising, amusingly droll opening scenes, which establish “Duck World” as a satirical, pun-heavy take on planet Earth, are as good as this movie gets. The subsequent scenes, of Howard suddenly being sucked into the atmosphere, across the cosmos and down to Earth, are truly spectacular. We even have a narrator announce, “In the beginning there was…Howard the Duck,” followed by the title exploding to life. Unfortunately, as Howard crashes to Earth, so does the rest of the movie.

There are moments, like a montage of Howard walking Cleveland streets alone, that suggest writer/director team (and married couple) Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz understood Steve Gerber’s character. There are a few throwaway lines that are funny, the animatronic duck effects are outstanding and Thomas Dolby’s songs are quite good (“Don’t Turn Away” should have been the breakout single, not the kitschy title song). For the first half, everything feels uneven but you wait for the movie to course correct itself. It’s at the point that Jones’ Dr. Jennings shows up that the whole thing goes bananas, with an endless showcase of busy special effects, that movie becomes an ordeal.

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While never dull, “Howard the Duck” is often unpleasant (a bit with an alien tongue is too much, even for this movie) and insufferable. I don’t blame the cast, who try hard (in Robbins’ case, much too hard), nor Lucas, though his involvement gave movie critics a target to throw their verbal darts. The problem is that the movie obviously wants to be “Ghostbusters” but is so untamed (note the out of place hot tub sequence and a bit at a nuclear power plant that stops the film), the wry lightness of the earlier scenes get trampled over.

I grew up with this movie and have seen it far too many times. As both a comic book adaptation and a rotten cinematic interpretation of my favorite comic book, I find it fascinating. Could this work better today, with CGI, or as an animated film, or as a satire of the overload of comic book movies (many of which are even more excessive and stuffed with visual overkill than this was in 1986?). I certainly hope someone cracks this egg and gives it another go. The joy of Howard’s plight amongst “hairless apes” and griping against a broken world still have resonance in comic book form. As is, the “Howard the Duck” movie burdens itself with being a “comic book movie” in a broad sense. Yes, Howard is a cosmic figure but the movie forgets it’s about a duck who just needs to find a job to support his hairless ape girlfriend. The character is too good to not work as a movie. For now, the 1986 is such a loud, overlong botch, its the audience, not Howard, who will feel like they’re trapped in a world they never made.

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