Howard the Duck (1986) Movie Review

One has to wonder if a movie like Howard the Duck really even requires a review. Maybe it’s enough to ask one simple question: Does the concept of a wisecracking duck (or rather, a dwarf actor in an animatronic duck suit) battling the forces of evil while romancing the lead singer of an all-girl synth-pop band intrigue you? If your answer is “yes”, you’ll probably enjoy Howard the Duck.

When the movie was originally released in 1986, America’s answer was a resounding “no”. Howard the Duck was a major box office bomb, and has since become one of those movies like Leonard Part 6 or Showgirls or Gigli whose very title has become a synonym for “big budget disaster”.

Certainly, hopes for the film were high at the outset; Howard the Duck was a Lucasfilm production, and even sported a “George Lucas Presents” credit. The script was by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, the husband-and-wife writing team who collaborated with Lucas on American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the film was directed by Huyck. So no surprise, Universal was banking on it as their big blockbuster release for the summer of ’86.

But somewhere along the way, something went very wrong. In retrospect, it seems the main problem was that Howard the Duck, the comic book, wasn’t summer blockbuster material in the first place.

Howard the Duck was created by Steve Gerber, and made his debut in the pages of Marvel Comics in the late 1970s. In spite of the outlandish concept of a short-tempered, cigar-chomping duck from another dimension trapped on Earth, the character was briefly popular. This was in no small part due to his ability to spoof the entire superhero genre, all the while shamelessly breaking the fourth wall. Howard was “meta” before “meta” was cool. But more than that, Howard the Duck was one of the few funny animal characters at the time written by and for adults.

Howard the Duck, the movie, makes an attempt to retain that level of sophistication. But it seems at some point, the makers realized little kids just might be interested in a movie about a talking duck. The final result is a generally family-friendly film that veers into adult territory just long enough to be crude and disturbing, much like a drunk uncle telling dirty jokes at a Bar Mitzvah.

The plot is really sort of incidental to the film, but it goes like this: Howard is an anthropomorphic duck living on a planet of anthropomorphic ducks. Their planet is identical to Earth, except everything is named as a duck-related pun. Howard lives in “Marshington, D.C.”, has a “MallardCard” in his wallet, and a poster for “Breeders of the Lost Stork” on his wall. And as this movie quickly proves, puns are the lowest form of comedy. (Though, I did laugh at the other poster on Howard’s wall, showing his planet’s version of My Little Chickadee, which is called… My Little Chickadee).

One evening, he and his easy chair are spontaneously yanked out of his living room, and sent on a journey through the cosmos. Howard eventually crash lands in Cleveland, Ohio, where he meets Beverly (Lea Thompson) and rescues her from muggers using his patented “Quack-Fu”.

Beverly is the lead singer of an all-girl group called the Cherry Bomb (whose repertoire is mostly written by one-hit wonder Thomas Dolby). Beverly is also acquainted with a young scientist named Phil (Tim Robbins, in one of his first acting roles). Through him and his mentor Dr. Jenning (Jeffrey Jones), we learn it was their laboratory experiment that accidentally brought Howard to Earth.

But before they can send him back, another creature is inadvertently brought to Earth. This creature possesses Dr. Jenning and calls himself a “Dark Overlord of the Universe”, and has plans to take over the world. Various wacky chases ensue, including Howard and Phil escaping from police on an Ultralight aircraft, all of it leading up to an ending that sets up a sequel that thankfully never happened.

The film has a few positives, mostly with the special effects. The animatronics for Howard are remarkable, especially for the time. As noted on the DVD, the dwarf in the suit (Ed Gale) couldn’t even see where he was going most of the time, and all of his dialogue was dubbed in long after filming wrapped. The fact that Howard comes off as believable at all is a minor miracle.

And when the Dark Overlord eventually reveals his true form, it’s a pretty good stop-motion creature effect. I mean, you can tell it’s a stop-motion effect, but you can also tell Howard is a dwarf in a suit, so it’s not really an issue.

The other obvious merit, for viewers of a certain persuasion, is Lea Thompson wearing skimpy panties in a scene where she makes the moves on Howard. I would imagine this was a moment of sexual awakening for many of the boys in the audience. I would imagine it was also a moment of profound discomfort for the parents who took those boys to see this movie.

When the film came out, most of the criticism was aimed at the film’s overt sexuality. At one point, Howard tries to earn a living by getting a job at a hot tub sauna, which might as well be a brothel, given all the scantily-clad couples frolicking about.

But that’s nothing compared to the opening scene where Howard is pulled out of his living room, during which he crashes through the apartment of his female duck neighbor. Who’s in the bathtub. Topless. Showing off her bare, feathery duck boobs.

And the choice of villain was pretty disturbing for what’s essentially a kid film. Off the top of my head, I can’t really describe the ideal nemesis for a talking duck, but a possessed Jeffrey Jones doing his best Linda Blair impression, complete with demonic prosthetics and lasers shooting from his eyes, would not be at the top of my list.

Ultimately, the film is just too overloaded and busy. To my recollection, there has never been a comedy made funnier by adding more special effects, more explosions, or more noise. Howard the Duck has far too many things going on at once, and none of them are funny.

Case in point: In one scene, Howard, Beverly, and their Dark Overlord stop at a diner. According to the sign, the diner has recently switched over to serving “Cajun sushi”. And all the redneck waiters and waitresses are wearing Japanese rising sun hachimaki headbands. This is a sight gag that might have been mildly amusing, if we weren’t already trying to wrap our minds around a talking duck, and a guy possessed by a demon from another dimension.

Howard the Duck is finally out on DVD this month, and fans can now watch it in widescreen for the first time in 23 years. The DVD is sorely lacking a commentary track, but it does have a few nice featurettes, including recent interviews with the cast and crew (with the exception of George Lucas and Tim Robbins, who apparently had better things to do). Unfortunately, they don’t raise my opinion of this film much at all. I’m still of the belief that (apologies in advance; this movie’s sense of humor has rubbed off on me) Howard the Duck is an idea that never should have been hatched in the first place.

Willard Huyck (director) / Steve Gerber (comic books), Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz (screenplay)
CAST: Lea Thompson … Beverly Switzler
Jeffrey Jones … Dr. Walter Jenning
Tim Robbins … Phil Blumburtt
Dominique Davalos … Cal, Cherry Bomb
Holly Robinson Peete … K.C., Cherry Bomb

Buy Howard the Duck on DVD