HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)
Howard the Duck was based on the cult Marvel comic and written by previous George Lucas collaboraters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck (the latter also directed the film). It started out as a low budget affair but quickly went around 20% over budget.
The film tells the tale of a duck (unsurprisingly named Howard) who lives on a world where ducks have evolved to be the dominant lifeform. There are a plethora of visual jokes in the opening scene based on the idea of world where ducks are the dominant lifeform. This includes a poster for a movie called "Breeders of the Lost Stork", Rolling Egg magazine, a TV commercial for "Crazy Webby's" and even a copy of Playduck!
Howard is unexpectedly plucked from his room and hurled through space. The impressive effects sequence by ILM has a reference to Kubrick's 2001 with the glimpse of a monolith.
He land on Earth (Cleveland, to be more precise) and meets singer Beverly (Lea Thompson) and her band are performing. Feeling sorry for him, Beverly invites him back to her place (one wonder if she does this for all strange men she meets, or only if they have feathers).
The next day Beverly puts an indignant Howard in a black bag so she can take him to her lab assistant friend, Phil (a very young looking Tim Robbins). "It's a bird, it's a plane . . . it's a duck!" exclaims Phil at one point (obviously not realising Superman and Howard are from rival comics companies).
Out on his own, Howard causes a panic on the streets (people evidently not being able to see that he's just a midget in a suit). He tries to get a job and the employment officer thinks he's just a weirdo in little tyke clothes trying to get out of work. With nowhere else to go, Howard finds Beverly and her band (Cherry Bomb) and takes over from their crooked manager (threatening to give space rabies to anyone who stands in his way).
Back at Beverly's place, she saunters around in her underwear before inviting Howard into bed with her. For a few moments it looks like we might be witnessing the first scene of bestiality in a family movie. However, Phil arrives with a Dr. Jennings (Jeffrey Jones) to tell Howard some exciting news about the lazer that brought him to Earth.
Of course things go wrong when they try and reverse it and and the lazer misfires at another part of the galaxy, blasting Jennings.
The film then switches gears from a satirical comedy to an adventure. Jennings begins to change inside ("Like a sex change?" Howard asks). It turns out he has being possessed by the entity that came down in the lazer - a Dark Overlord from a region of demons. His face bulging, Jennings speaks in a scary voice that must play hell with his vocal chords.
Howard eventually takes the evil out of Jennings with a disintegrator, but that means the Dark Overlord is now back in its true form. Hence, a giant monster bursts out of the floor. The Dark Overlord is an impressive stop motion puppet that has held up better than some from that era.
Howard gives a Tarzan yell during this scene, just like Chewie in Return of the Jedi (if Lucas thinks a joke is worth using once, it's worth using many times).
Howard saves the world and gets to perform with Beverly's band for the finale.
Howard is not a particularly likeable character, though he does have his amusing and heroic moments. He was portrayed by a number of small actors and voiced by Chip Zien. The visualisation of Howard was probably the best they could at the time (and the suit reportedly cost $2 million) but it never appears as anything more than a little person in a suit. Perhaps if the technology had been around for a computer generated Howard, the film might have been more successful.
Lea Thompson brings the same wholesome charm to Beverly that she also had in Back to the Future. It's funny how the actress dealt with potential incest in that earlier film and then potential bestiality in Howard.
It's fun seeing Tim Robbins in a very early role (he'd probably like to forget his part in this). Jeffrey Jones seems to be having the most fun of the cast. His portrayal of both Jennings and the Dark Overlord add a lot to the film.
Huyck does a respectable job in his (to date) last directing role, handling the character moments and the big action scenes like a pro. It's a shame the movie pretty much killed his career.
The film has some surprisingly big action scenes towards the end, that seem slightly out of the place with the more comedic first half and feel more like the work of Lucas.
Aside from the aforementioned hint of bestiality (which can't have been completely unintentional) there aren't really any deeper meanings to the film. It's just a stupid comic book movie, and works fine on that level.
Overall, the film is certainly no worse than dozens of other 80's films that turned out to be big hits, and has quite a few clever and fun ideas. Perhaps the film just wasn't sure which audience to aim for, and ended up pleasing none of them. The film is surprisingly raunchy for a movie aimed at kids, with Howard being a lecherous character at times.
At the same time it's perhaps too silly and juvenile for mature audiences. With a better script it could have been a minor classic, but as it stands it's a flawed but mostly enjoyable diversion for undemanding audiences.
Howard the Duck was released to scathing reviews and very disappointing box office. Even though it made almost $38 million worlwide, that wasn't enough to cover the costs and meet expectations. The film would become one of the infamous Hollywood flops (like Heaven's Gate and Ishtar) and something of an embarrassment to Lucas, who believed the reviews were even harsher because of his name being attached. The film was retitled Howard: A New Breed of Hero in the U.K. but it didn't help much.
Whatever the reason for the failure, the film was the first big flop that Lucas was associated with, and has been dismissed as a worthless endeavor. Lucas himself has commented that the film shares many similarities with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), which of course was a huge hit. Perhaps Howard the Duck was just ahead of its time. Unlike Labyrinth, it has not become a cult classic and is currently not even available on DVD.
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