Howard the Duck (1986)


Among the most legendary films there are those that achieved their fame in a different way.  Those movies go by names like Heaven's Gate, Ishtar, Battlefield Earth and, rather famously because it was produced by George Lucas and featured a fringe Marvel Comics property, Howard the Duck.  Sure, there are plenty of terrible (or so bad they're good) films, but many of those were made on a budget that was barely above that of a school play.  To truly fail in a legendary way takes a lot of money.

George Lucas was rolling in cash by the middle of the 1980s, so much that he built his own place to make movies, edit and do post production called Skywalker Ranch.  The endeavor, located in a remote area of Marin County in California, cost $50 million.  In today's dollars this would be just shy of $120 million and, keep in mind, this was one guy who was an independent film maker who, among other things, had founded his own special effects company (Industrial Light and Magic) and had his own film distribution company (Lucasfilm).  On top of that he was beginning to dabble in computer animation and theater sound systems. The Star Wars property itself, though at the time thought largely finished, still had all content and property controlled by Lucas for use in books and video games - not to mention the continued merchandising revenue from toys and everything else related to the franchise.  

The reason he was able to do this was not only because of Star Wars, but because it seemed like everything he and his friend Steven Spielberg touched would turn to gold.  Both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had been major hits, continuing to keep Lucas's name in the spotlight despite the fact he was largely a background figure by this time.  His personal involvement in Star Wars had driven him to exhaustion numerous times, and he was ready to enjoy his semi-retirement.  $50 million was a lot, but there was no way the first live-action Marvel Comics film, infused with ILM's magic, was going to fail.  Sure, Willard Huyck, who had written for Lucas before, didn't have the best track record on his own - his most recent film, Best Defense, was a commercial and critical failure - but it didn't matter.  Put Lucas's name up front, and people will flock to see it, no matter how weird the premise.

Howard (Chip Zien) is settling into his advertising job after realizing it is time to leave his dreams of being a famous musician behind.  While relaxing in his apartment he is suddenly yanked by an unknown force across the universe (and other dimensions) to a planet not too unlike his own - except that on this one apes evolved instead of ducks.  Worse yet, he lands in Cleveland.  As a three-foot tall talking duck he definitely does not fit in, and does not receive the warmest of welcomes.  He finally makes a friend with musician Beverly (Lea Thompson) after rescuing her from some ruffians, and she agrees to help see if they can get him home.

One of her band member's boyfriends happens to be a lab assistant named Phil (Tim Robbins), and through him they are connected to Dr. Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones), whose experimental laser telescope was responsible for transporting Howard to Earth.  Unfortunately, when trying to see if it can transport Howard back, it ends up transferring a Dark Overlord of the Galaxy into Jenning, which eventually takes over is body and plots to use the experimental laser to transport others of its kind from a demon dimension to Earth.  Howard, Beverly and Phil must work together to stop him before all of humanity (and one unlucky duck) is destroyed. 

Prior to watching this, although I knew it had Lea Thompson, a talking duck and somewhere in it an uncomfortable bedroom scene, I knew quite little about what happened in the actual movie.  I knew plenty of what happened as a result of it: Lucas was brought to near financial ruin, selling off that animation studio to Steve Jobs (it eventually became Pixar).  Willard Huyck, though he has continued as a screenwriter (including on another underwhelming Lucas-produced film, The Radioland Murders), never directed another movie again.  Lea Thompson was able to continue her career, but Howard the Duck remained something no one dared to touch until he appeared in an end-credits sequence in Guardians of the Galaxy.  Neither Jeffrey Jones nor Tim Robbins had any problem with their career either, but largely I think most people forgot either of them were in Howard the DuckFerris Bueller's Day Off came out the same year, giving Jones one of his most memorable roles as Principal Rooney, while Robbins still had The Shawshank Redemption in his future. 

Looking back, it's no surprise that the actors survived it, as Howard the Duck is not a horrendous, unwatchable film like Battlefield Earth.  Lea Thompson and Jeffrey Jones are both great, especially when the latter starts becoming possessed.  Robbins is the one horrible point when it comes to acting, but he tones it down toward the end of the film.  The voice acting for Howard is decent, even if the duck suit looked like a high school mascot with some animatronics added.  The music definitely did not age well, and the concert at the end is rather embarrassing, but a good deal of the movie fits in well with its time.  The Overlord is a great creature design with excellent stop-motion work, though it isn't always well-integrated with the scene.  The ultralight chase and the diner destruction scenes are actually quite a bit of fun.  

Howard the Duck, however, was not a family-friendly character, and Huyck and cowriter Gloria Katz were trying to make something family friendly.  Only, they weren't.  They were also trying to make it an adult film, with duck breasts (literally, in the open scenes, and I don't mean the type you get in a French restaurant), thugs attempting to rape Beverly and an entire restaurant full of people willing to dismember Howard alive and consume him on the spot.  Not to mention, although she says that she was only kidding, we see the build up to a sex scene between Beverly and Howard that gets interrupted.  The looks they give each other toward the end of the film hint that the frightening possibility is still there, as a good part of the movie is dedicated to their budding romance.  Huyck and Katz really needed to decide who the audience for this was.  

Because neither Huyck nor Katz know how far, or what direction they truly want to take things, the main problem with the movie is that it is boring in places and, given its concept, not weird enough.  Hate to say it, but if they had gone with the a human-duck love scene (even implied behind a sheet or the camera turning away at the last moment - I highly doubt it would have gone further than that), shortened the run time and upped the violence a bit, we would be talking about a great cult film from the '80s instead of the movie that almost brought Lucas's empire crumbling down around him.  

That is the main reason this movie failed - mediocrity.  There were movies for a fraction of the budget that pushed the boundaries of good taste, but still made a profit and are talked about today.  Yes, going for the unthinkable would have saddled Howard the Duck with an R, had the Moral Majority clutching their Bibles so tight their fingerprints would be forever imprinted in the covers.  Siskel and Ebert would have done their usual hand wringing, wondering to what depths Hollywood would sink next.  But people would have gone to see it, and even enjoyed it.  As it was the movie retread ground already covered by Lucas, had plots and effects people were already getting used to and, simply, did not bring anything new to the proceedings other than a talking duck.  It commits the cardinal sin of any movie of its type: not being exciting, or daring, enough to live up to its premise.  

Howard the Duck (1986)
Time: 110 minutes
Starring: Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, Jeffrey Jones, Chip Zien, Ed Gale (and numerous others in the duck suit). 
Director: Willard Huyck

 

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