Howard the Duck (1986) (part 1 of 6)

SUMMARY: From the mind of George Lucas and Marvel Comics, another story of a boy, a girl, and a galaxy. Well, okay. Lucas just executive produced the thing, the “boy” is a midget in a duck suit with a creepy animatronic head, and the “galaxy” is just Cleveland, but there is a girl!

Howard the Duck (1986) (part 1 of 6)

Superheroes are running wild at the box office these days. Batman has had a cinematic resurrection that has been nothing short of miraculous, Iron Man not only did fantastic business but was also a fantastic film in itself, and we’ve even had a bold re-thinking of the entire genre with the release of Watchmen.

It hasn’t always been this way, however. The era of consistently good superhero films is actually pretty new. Starting with X-Men in 2000, we’ve had a pretty good run, an extremely lucky run. Before that, the only real quality superhero/comic book films had been the first two Superman films, and the first two Batman films. As for other big names, Captain America got a few bad made for TV films with Reb Brown and a truly awful 1990 version from Albert Pyun. Hell, Spider-Man only got a crappy TV movie, a recurring spot on The Electric Company, and almost a feature film from Cannon Pictures.

Second tier characters also got a shot. Dolph Lundgren portrayed the Punisher in 1989, but three years prior to this, another character from Marvel Comics made his debut on the big screen… where he was met with crushing failure. Yes folks, it’s time to delve into the world of the twenty mega-ton bomb that is Howard the Duck.

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Yes, Howard the Duck. The film that dares to ask the question “Am I hallucinating this, or is this movie really happening?”

Caption contributed by Ed

Yes, the early ‘70s: When all you needed to give a new comic book character credibility was to team him up with Spider-Man.

It all began in 1973 with a guest role in Marvel’s Man-Thing comic. Co-creator Steve Gerber, a man with a unique sense of humor and a flair for satire decided to make an anthropomorphic, misanthropic duck who tended to fight bizarre villains that parodied the horror genre. The character, and indeed the comic in general, was satirical and irreverent, and Howard gained a cult following which resulted in a regular series that went until 1979.

I’m not sure exactly what would possess someone to think that this would make for a dynamite film. A fairly obscure character, the tricky problem of satire and… Oh hell, what am I doing? It’s a live-action film about a talking duck! Even worse: It’s a live action film about a talking duck that takes the satire of the comic and replaces it with a muddled tone, a crappy sense of humor, and the standard F/X heavy plot that admittedly worked just fine for the most part throughout the ‘80s.

Jesus Christ, it would take a certified whack job to think that would be a good idea! Hell, either that or a genius… Maybe a genius in the minds of his peers. Someone everybody could look at and say “Hey, he could make it work!”

Somebody like George Lucas.

You know, for all the shit George takes for the prequel trilogy, it’s important to remember that his genius has been called into question before. Hell, I’d go so far as to say the prequels improved his rep a bit, especially considering this whacked out oddity which bears his name as executive producer. Apparently, he was having financial troubles at the time this film was made, and he was counting on it to help get him out of debt. What he got was an hour and fifty minutes worth of amazingly insane, misguided, yet oddly hypnotic crap that ended up earning several Razzies, including Worst Film and Worst Screenplay.

The crazy thing is that this film does have its fans and admirers. There are some websites devoted to it, and recently the world was given a special edition DVD of the film.

I’ve been waiting for this a long time. Let the madness begin!

Howard the Duck (1986) (part 1 of 6)

We begin normally enough, with low key jazz music playing over a city. Things start to get odd, though, as we see there are two suns, a rather cheesy Star Wars reference that only the saddest of geeks would get. Moving through the city, we fade to an apartment as the tenant enters. A light is switched on and rather than photos of people, on the table there are photos of anthropomorphic ducks.

Yes, this is Duckworld, an alternate world where everybody is a duck. Every product is marketed towards ducks. The pop culture and locations all involve a duck pun. It’s like someone took the most annoying thing about the Smurfs and put it on display for the first five minutes of this film.

Admittedly, this is a reasonably clever gag, but like a successful joke on Letterman it will quickly be run into the ground so deep it comes back up smelling like magma.

It begins with a film poster for My Little Chickadee starring Mae Nest and W.C. Fowls. And yes, this is about the level the gag will stay at for the first few minutes. It continues as our unseen tenant sets some mail on a chair addressed to Howard T. Duck of Marshington D.C., more specifically a postcard from a lady friend who misses his bill pressed against hers.

So yes, we are headed to a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.

Next up is a shot of another poster, this one for the Duckworld version of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The title? Breeders of the Lost Stork featuring the adventures of Indiana Drake. I wonder if Spielberg ever thinks about this and contemplates telling George to go to hell.

By the way, this makes two Lucas in-jokes in less than two minutes of screen time. Just saying, is all.

Our as-yet-unseen tenant checks the messages on his answering machine, and we get a look at some more photos, including a hippie duck in the ‘60s. As he gets a beer from the fridge we get yet another gag, with Rolling Stone magazine being called Rolling Egg here. Okay film, the novelty is wearing off. In fact, it’s getting a little weird, to be frank.

Adding to the feeling is the message playing from a lady friend who has had a strange dream about our mysterious tenant. As the message ends, the tenant turns on the TV and at this point the film is just messing with us. We know the guy is a duck! The title of movie tipped us off way before the litany of duck gags that started this thing. It’s gone from weird to tiresome.

Another poster gag comes: this one is for the 1983 hit Flashdance, which has been changed to Splashdance, and finally we see Howard in all his creepy glory, played for the most part by Ed Gale and others and voiced by Chip Zien. Just imagine a three foot tall duck made by the best ILM could muster in 1986… after all other options had failed.

Howard the Duck (1986) (part 1 of 6)

The look itself is not bad, until you get to the eyes. Since this was a few years before digital got to an acceptable point of quality, Howard’s head was controlled animatronically which allows for a very good range of motion and realism, providing one can get past the eye problem. Sadly, ILM missed the boat.

I generally don’t bitch about a film using live, on-the-set special effects, but when the “supposed to be likable” lead character has the eyes of a killer, I balk.

Seriously, take a good long look at the eyes and tell me you’re not creeped out! I know special effects could only do so much, but you would think they could at least not have the guy have a blank eyed “I’m going to put a chainsaw up your ass” stare!

More duck gags come up as he flips through the channels. A commercial for jock itch relief… with ducks. I won’t get into it, but let’s just say that if you ever see a bird with feather fungus, turn around and run your ass off!

Some more gags go by as he flips through the channels, before he gives up and turns to the mail, taking a magazine out of a brown envelope… Oh Christ. Instead of Playboy, we have Playduck. And I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

As Howard turns to the centerfold (twins this month), the room begins to shake. Howard tries to get up but can’t (which our lead helpfully explains out loud as it happens) and suddenly his chair is lifted up and thrown back through the wall of his apartment. He smashes through several rooms, one of which contains the inevitable lady duck taking a bath. Ever wanted to see boobs on a duck? No? Good! You’re normal, which is more than I can say for the weirdo who came up with this little bit.

Howard goes through the hallway and through another wall heading up into the sky. He gets past the city and is pulled towards a pink vortex in the clouds. The chair catches fire and now it is just Howard flailing as he’s pulled through the vortex.

He exits the vortex into open space and a narrator comes on as images of space, planets and asteroids are shown.

Narrator: The cosmos. Countless worlds upon worlds. Worlds without end. In these galaxies, every possible reality exists. And what is reality on one world is mere fantasy in all others. Here all is real, and all is an illusion.

Is it possible there’s an alternate reality where narrators don’t all sound like that one pompous, self-important professor in college who got stuck up his own ass one day and decided to stay there?

Ed Harris

A fan of less than great cinema since childhood, Ed divides his time between writing scripts, working an actual paying job and subjecting himself willingly to some of the worst films society has produced.

Multi-Part Article: Howard the Duck (1986)

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  • Xeethra

    It was worth watching that celluloid carnival of shame just to savour a line like:

    “Don’t give (Tim Robbins) a hard time for how he expresses his political views; give him a hard time for this performance, which mixes the moral compass of Daffy Duck and the personality of Jerry Lewis into one six-foot-five blemish on the ass of an already bad movie.” 

    That’s perked my day right up. Cheers!

    • edharris1178

       Thanks.  Nice to see this recap is still being read.

  • The Doctor

    I have to admit, Howard the Duck was/is something of a guilty pleasure for me. Yes, it’s a campy B-movie with an absurd plot about a guy in a duck suit — but in the end, I can still respect it because it’s content to just be a campy B-movie with an absurd plot, rather than trying to take itself seriously. (Sort of like The Core, which cheerfully lampshades the utter absurdity of its own plot the moment the scientist admits that he named his miracle alloy “unobtanium”.) What I really hate are campy B-movies with stupid plots that think they’re A-list films and take themselves oh-so-very-seriously.

    Besides… for all its flaws, Howard‘s still better than any of the crap the Syfy Channel puts out these days. 😀

    I seem to recall the FX monster looking better on the big screen, so I wonder if the apparent mismatch on home video is a problem with the transfer, or the print they used. (Then again, I also seem to recall they were having a lot of trouble during the mid-80s and beyond with that kind of thing; video transfers introduce a slight color shift which, for some reason, cause matte F/X that look perfectly fine on the silver screen to be glaringly obvious mismatches on video — and vice-versa; if they adjust the color balance to look right when the film is transferred to video, it looks mismatched in the theater. I’m not sure how they eventually resolved that.)