HOWARD THE DUCK
Directed by: Willard Huyck
Written by: Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz
Staring: Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, Terry Jones, Chip Zien
Before Iron Man changed comic book movies, before Marvel Studios existed, and before the synergistic acquisition of Marvel by Disney, there was a comic-to-film adaptation that changed the world. It defied the odds, logic, and was fostered into existence by George “Star Wars” Lucas himself.
Yes. I’m talking about Howard the Duck. A motion picture that would forever change how we perceive the world. Rosebud, shmose-bud. Howard had arrived to quack-fu kick us into the next millennium of filmmaking.
Okay, so maybe I went a little overboard with the hyperbole on that one. How else can I sell this spectacle past the title, though? Let’s start with a little bit of history.
Howard the Duck is a Marvel Comics character, created in 1973 by Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik. He is large anthropomorphic duck prone to cigars, tiny fedoras, and fits of rage (what’s the deal with duck characters having anger management issues). He’s trapped on our world doing nothing extraordinary other than living and surviving. In the early days, Howard’s adventures tended to fall into the vein of horror parodies (which is a concept that informed the subsequent, hardly family-friendly, movie). Later, Gerber brought forward the tone of Howard the Duck being a more existential book, noting wonderfully that, “life's most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view.” Gerber brought a meta-textual and inquisitive nature to the book. This tone, however, was violently dismissed from the movie adaptation.
So, here you have an antihero who fights monsters and lines at the DMV with equal vigor and indignation. How do you inform that into a single movie narrative? Well, it’s arguable if writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz did with any kind of success. However, what transpired is a hidden gem of Hollywood cheesiness.
The movie was a favorite in my childhood and has maintained said status in adulthood, but for different reasons. When I was a five-year-old sitting in the cinema on opening weekend, I was just enamored with the high level plot. It’s a duck-man who fights giant monsters and plays the guitar. As I got older, the utter perverse nature of much of the plot was almost a revelation. This movie is not for kids featuring heavy innuendos, duck boobies, proportional condoms, and the implication of anthropomorphic bestiality (wait, is it bestiality if the animal-party can consent… anyway). Let’s dive in.
Howard is plucked from his living room, through the cosmos, and into our world due to the meddling of pesky scientists on earth. He’s dropped in the middle of Whatever-city America where he quickly befriends a down on her luck musician by the name of Beverly (Lea Thompson). Beverly is pretty open to Howard being an alien and is immediately flirtatious. Different strokes, right? She brings Howard to Phil (Academy Award winner, Tim Robbins in a tour de force performance) who is a junior scientist working at the local museum. He is the only person Bev can think to take Howard for answers. Hilarity, hijinks, and human-duck relations ensue until the plot kicks into high gear in act two.
You see, those pesky scientists from before think they might have opened a portal for other, much more threatening, beings from other dimensions to break through to our world. With Howard’s help (I’m not sure how), they can hopefully close this gap and send him back to his home. Things don’t go swimmingly and before we know it, Howard and the gang are forced to battle the Dark Overlord of Planet X (no shit).
Originally conceived as an animated movie, Lucas’ involvement precipitated the use of Industrial Light and Magic’s skills to create a live-action Howard. Like the Godzilla days of old, Howard is a man in a suit with an animatronic mouth, eyes and, expressions. Sometimes it’s a wonderful effect and sometimes it’s just not. Howard’s proportions often fluctuate. Depending on the suit’s limitations per scene, it can take you out of the film at times. But where ILM had inconsistent success with Howard, they delivered tenfold with the reveal of the movie’s big bad at the end. To this day, this is some of the most fluid and immersive stop-motion animation in a live-action film I have ever seen. The articulation is nearly flawless and genuinely frightening.
Tonally, Howard the Duck is all over the map, which almost strengthens the overall experience. Both broad and very specific, sometimes in the same scene, it can be difficult to follow. I’m not entirely sure who the intended audience for this movie was because they commit to neither fully. However, having seen the movie at two different times in my life, I’m of two minds about it. There were many things that flew over my head when I was younger. There are also cringe worthy moments that used to illicit cheering. Make of it what you will, but Howard the Duck’s greatest weakness may in fact be its saving grace.
A few years ago, Lucasfilm and Universal finally released Howard the Duck on DVD with a new transfer, documentaries, and interviews (which are sadly without Tim Robbins involvement). Of course, the creative blame marketing and studio confusion on the film’s eventual financial failure. Is it me, or has this been the go to complaint of cult films’ success (or lack their of)? “The studio just didn’t know what to do with us.” I’m sure it’s true in some instances, but not every time. Sometimes a movie just doesn’t hit the mark. Own it, man.
It’s not currently on Netflix streaming, but it’s not hard to find. I highly recommend checking this cheesy gem out. This movie really is something special. It’s a grand critical and financial failure as well as a stunning achievement in tone and special effects. Love it or hate it, you have to try it to find out.
If it were a safe bet, these types of pleasures wouldn’t make you feel very guilty. Where’s the fun in that?