THE DUCK (1986)
Director: Willard Huyck
I don't believe I would be exaggerating if I said that the comic book industry is dominated by superheroes. But as I've noted in some of my other reviews, other non-superhero comic book characters have managed to gain a little notoriety for themselves. Characters like Swamp Thing, Dick Tracy, and Archie Andrews's gang of friends have all managed to make their own marks on pop culture over the years. Another such character is the one and only Howard the Duck. Created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik, Howard made his first appearance in 1973 as a secondary character in Man-Thing's regular comic. He graduated to his own short-lived series in 1976, and the character's irreverent charm and unconventional style led to a cult following, along with of all things a failed run for President under the banner of the All-Night Party. But for all his comic standing was worth, what finally made Howard a true household name was his own feature film. With Universal Pictures serving as distributors and Lucasfilm Limited handling production, Howard the Duck hit theaters on August 1, 1986, earning it status as the very first Marvel Comics adaptation to receive a wide theatrical release. But more importantly, it turns out that Howard the Duck would be a tremendous failure at the box office and would develop a reputation as one of the most famous bad movies of all time.
As our story begins, we're introduced to Howard T. Duck (the voice of Chip Zien), a washed-up musician from a far-away planet where anthropomorphid ducks are the dominant species. As Howard comes home after a long day, something yanks him out of his apartment and hurls him across the cosmos. Howard lands in a sleazy back alley in Cleveland, where, despite the initial comedy of errors caused by his strange new surroundings, he ends up saving punk rock singer Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson) from a pair of muggers. A grateful Beverly strikes up a friendship with the strange visitor from another world, inviting him to stay at her apartment until his situation can be dealt with.
The next day, Howard and Beverly begin searching for a way to return Howard back to his home planet. Their search leads them to Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins), a goofball working in a local laboratory. I really don't see how Phil is going to be of any assistance, since he immediately tries to see if Howard has superpowers and he thinks quacking noises will be an effective means of communication despite the fact that Howard can speak perfect English. I'm just saying, the guy is kind of a spaz. And as it turns out, he's barely a step above the janitors on the lab's pecking order, so he probably won't be of much help anyway. But then he ends up being useful after all, matching one of Howard's feathers to a feather found at the laboratory of Dr. Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones).
Dr. Jennings and his staff had been performing some supposedly routine experiments involving the firing of a high-tech laser beam into deep space. But due to a malfunction in the laser, it ended up hitting Howard's planet and it sucked him to Earth. Howard theorizes that setting the laser to operate in reverse could send him home, but another malfunction occurs before they can test that theory. The second malfunction pulls down an entity known as the "Dark Overlord of the Universe," a beast from a distant region of space populated by demons. The Dark Overlord takes control over of Dr. Jenning, vowing to bring more of his kind to Earth and raise all kinds of hell. And as you would assume, it's up to Howard to stop the Dark Overlord and save the planet before it's too late.
George Lucas was on top of the world during the first half of the 1980s. Coming off Star Wars and American Graffiti the decade prior, the success of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom made it look as if Lucas really did have the Midas touch. But then along came Howard the Duck, a movie so bad that he supposedly disowned it. It was more than ten years after Hollywood movies started popping up on DVD before Howard the Duck got an American release on the format, and I'm actually surprised that Lucas didn't try to keep it locked up in the Universal vaults for the rest of eternity. It's one of those movies that the uninitiated can watch and say to themselves, "This is goofy and kinda dumb, but it's not so bad after all." But then once they've had a little time to let the whole thing sink in, they suddenly realize, "Holy crap, what did I watch?!"
Over the more than two decades since the movie's release, Lucas has been forced to shoulder a lot of the blame for this movie. And really, I don't think that's fair. He was just the movie's executive producer. All Lucas did was front the money; it was up to other people to spend it. If I had to point the finger of blame at anyone in particular, it would probably be at the husband/wife filmmaking team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. The whole thing is just a mess. From Huyck's muddled, hackneyed direction to his and Katz's dreadful script, they honestly could not have believed that this movie would have been successful. It honestly feels like Huyck and Katz had no idea what kind of movie they wanted to make. The actual plot doesn't kick in until halfway through the movie, and even then, there's all this other stuff that just goes on way too damn long. Did we really need the scene where Howard beats up Beverly's band's manager and his buddies? Did the scene where Howard and Phil steal an ultralight aircraft and get chased by the police absolutely need to take up so much time? That's not even the worst of it, because there's other, worse parts that really make you wonder what audience this movie was intended for. The concept of an alien duck stranded on Earth, the fantasy elements, all the really bad duck puns, and some of the sillier moments might lend themselves to a movie made for children. It's even rated PG, too. But then there's the scene where a half-naked Beverly starts putting the moves on Howard. And after that, there's the scene where Howard gets a job as a towel boy at a bathhouse. And it's all topped off with the female duck's exposed breasts in the first five minutes. No, I am not making any of that up. Go watch the movie if you don't believe me, I dare you. How did they manage to get attempted bestiality, a bathhouse, and duck tits by with only a PG rating? Did somebody slip the MPAA ratings board a little money under the table to avoid a harsher rating? And how do you justify trying to balance all that adult stuff with the more kid-friendly stuff? It's these grossly mishandled shifts in tone that only makes the movie even more frustrating to watch.
One of the oddest things about the movie, though, is how the characters interact with Howard. Only Tim Robbins's character seems really blown away by the fact that he's in the presence of a talking duck from another world. Beverly quickly finds herself falling in love with Howard, while others react with either sheer terror or outright hostility. But pretty much everyone else treats him like he's just a regular guy in a goofy costume. And you could kinda understand everyone else's sentiment too. Yeah, the Howard costume was pretty good by 1986 standards. They supposedly spent two million dollars developing it, which is a number that blows me away even now, in today's world of super-high effects budgets. But nowadays, it isn't 100% convincing. I mean, it's hard to suspend your disbelief when your main character has trouble making you believe he isn't really a gaggle of midgets wearing an animatronic duck mask. Although we can see that Howard is actually there on the set interacting with everyone, he still never feels quite real. It feels less like it's Howard the Duck there, and more like it's somebody wearing the world's coolest Howard the Duck costume. That's really all that can be said about it. The same can be said for the stop motion effects during Howard's climactic battle with the Dark Overlord at the end. The effects aren't perfect, but they're not totally awful either.
Last up is our cast, who I'm pretty sure all dread the fact that they're forever connected to this movie. Our leading lady, Lea Thompson, was on a real hot streak after starring in Red Dawn and Back to the Future. But if you want to know exactly when her career crashed and burned, you can look to 1986. First there was SpaceCamp, a movie inspired by the U.S. Space Camp in Alabama. The movie wasn't all that successful, and it was unfortunately released only six months after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. But SpaceCamp's lack of success was only compounded by Howard the Duck. This movie alone pretty much killed her career dead for a decade. Between Howard the Duck and her landing the lead role on Caroline in the City, the only notable things Thompson did were the Back to the Future sequels. That is, unless you want to extol the virtues of her roles in the early-'90s triple threat of the movie versions of Dennis the Menace, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Little Rascals. The death of her career aside, Thompson is... okay. She's not bad, she's not good. She's just adequate. And that's terrible, because being adequate doesn't really give me a whole lot to work with when writing these reviews. I'll give Thompson credit for doing her own vocals for her character's band's songs, and the fact that she managed to maintain a straight face while strutting around in her underwear while seducing a talking duck is amazing. I'm pretty sure that trying to hang onto any tiny shred of dignity while wearing a hideous hairstyle and clothes that Cyndi Lauper would have thrown away must have been be hard work, too. But other than that, she's rather unremarkable.
Tim Robbins is in this movie too, and it nearly killed his career before it even got started. I'm actually surprised he even got any work after this, let alone an Academy Award. The long and short of it is that he basically acts like an insufferable jackass for the entire movie. Seriously, every time he shows up, he does something stupid and it makes me want to jump into the movie and put him in a chokehold. Robbins is that awful. But it's not like the script does him any favors. I mean, he's required to make something resembling quacking noises for no other reasons than the writers thought it would be funny. It's not funny and it makes Robbins look stupid. I'm willing to bet that thanks to this movie, his career would have been dead in the water had he not been hired for Bull Durham. And then there's Chip Zien, the voice of Howard. Zien's work would have been serviceable had it not been for all the terrible jokes and puns and utter nonsense. But thanks to the bad writing, it just makes him a pain to listen to. And if you don't want to even listen to a movie, somebody's doing something wrong. At least we get a decent performance out of Jeffrey Jones. Jones is one of the very, very few bright spots in this movie. Though considering this is Howard the Duck we're talking about, "good" should probably equate to "less bad." But in all honesty, Jones takes the opportunity to go completely insane as his character becomes inhabited by the Dark Overlord of the Universe. He doesn't just chew the scenery; he puts it between two pieces of bread and eats it like a sandwich. His outrageous overacting is just too much fun. Although in a movie this stupid, any fun is better than no fun. Am I right?
Though many great movies came out in 1980s, there were also a whole lot of stinkers too. But very few of those bad movies have maintained both the cult following and the level of vitriol that have followed Howard the Duck since its release. It's one of those movies that's both hated and beloved for the exact same reasons. And even though it's a terrible, terrible movie, it's still charming in a "so bad, it's good" kind of way. Unfortunately, there's actually precious little in this movie that is legitimately good. We've got Jeffrey Jones's overacting, a scene with a half-naked Lea Thompson, and some good music. No kidding, the movie's music is actually pretty good. From John Barry's score to the songs written by Thomas Dolby (many of which, as I noted earlier, feature Thompson's real vocals), the music is one of the few things about the movie that could be called a redeeming factor. It still, however, doesn't change the fact that Howard the Duck is really bad. It's not quite Superman IV bad or Catwoman bad, and it thankfully isn't Uwe Boll bad. It's just one of those movies where its ambition is weighed down by too many bad ideas. I can't justify giving Howard the Duck anything more than one and a half stars. It can be fun if it catches you in the right mood, but still... meh. I know Marvel has chosen to give the Punisher, Captain America, and the Fantastic Four new starts after their disastrous cinematic outings, but I think a Howard the Duck film franchise should stay dead.
Final Rating: *½