Howard the Duck (1986) — The bizarre bomb full of fowl language

“On my planet we never say die, we say kill!”

Drew’s rating: Everyone in my household is now dumber for having watched this movie, including our rabbit. Also, I think God may be dead.

Drew’s review: The year is 1973. Writer Steve Gerber, working on the latest issue of horror/fantasy comic Fear, needs a visual to top that of a barbarian jumping out of a jar of peanut butter; his brain obliges with a cigar-chomping, suit-wearing cartoon duck named Howard, suddenly thrust into a dimension of “talking hairless apes” through a shift in the cosmic axis.

After fulfilling his one-joke purpose, Howard is unceremoniously booted through a nearby wormhole, seemingly never to return… yet from these humble beginnings, a legend is born. Refusing to lay down and die, the duck sparked a glimmer of potential in his creator’s mind and was swiftly revived for two back-up stories, then soon after received his own comic. Serving as Gerber’s personal soapbox, the ill-tempered Howard cantankerously put forth his opinions about life, philosophy and the social ills facing 1970s America, all while meandering through a series of increasingly bizarre adventures with companion/former nude art model Beverly Switzler.

A gruff but honest voice of reason in a decade gone mad, Howard made his points in a refreshingly sharp manner — occasionally preachy, always outspoken, he nonetheless rarely failed to amuse. Finally, losing steam after a very solid 27 issues, Gerber left the book and Howard lost his distinct voice, leading to the cancellation of his comic soon after.

The year is 1985. George Lucas, fresh off the success of Return of the Jedi, could strangle a nun in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard and not be arrested. Excess is the flavor of the decade, and film executives are coked up 90% of the time. Somehow, this translates into the idea of taking a ’70s cult character with the trappings of an independent comic and turning him into a big-budget, mainstream Hollywood film.

And from these unholy beginnings, a legend of an entirely different kind is born… one in which a mildly peevish being from the planet Duckworld is unceremoniously plucked from his apartment one night and sent careening through space, finally landing in a dirty back alley of Cleveland. Using his knowledge of Quak Fu to save Joan Jett-esque rock musician Beverly Switzler from a gang of muggers, the two strike up a friendship and begin investigating how to get Howard home.

Learning that his arrival was the result of an accident involving an experimental space laser, an even more frightening truth is soon revealed: One of the “Dark Overlords of the Universe” has also been brought to Earth and is bent on, you know, wrecking stuff up. But if stopping the Overlord means jeopardizing his chances of getting back home, can Howard come through in the clutch? Or will he need to be rechristened “Howard the Chicken?”

For years I’d heard that this film, while stupid, was really funny in a cult, campy sort of way. Now, having finally seen it, I feel I can safely say that… no, it honestly does just blow big honkin’ chunks all over the bathroom floor. It would be impossible to list all the things wrong with the movie, but I’m certainly willing to give it the ol’ college try, so game on.

For starters, Howard is supposed to be a cranky, curmudgeonly malcontent, a cross between your grandfather and a ’60s radical. He complains a lot, but he’s also got the smarts to generally back it up, and when he slips into self-pity people call him on it. Instead, we’re given an ordinary Everyduck with a token couple of whining lines about having given in to The Man and gotten a real job… who ends up becoming, in the ultra-wince-inducing ending, exactly what the comic version always railed against.

Nor is the character mutilation limited to only his personality — even Howard’s appearance is all wrong. Part of his appeal is that he’s clearly a cartoon duck: exaggerated facial expressions, freakishly large eyes, the whole nine yards. Instead filmgoers are treated to a midget in a crappy, scary-ass duck costume that would make grade schoolers wet themselves. And come to think of it, probably has.

Of course if that two-million-dollar turd weren’t enough, the rest of the special effects are just as laughable, even for the ’80s… it’s hard to believe that the company behind Star Wars also gave us the incredible stop-motion horror of the Dark Overlord.

And then there’s the love scene between Howard and Bev, which is both bizarre and just incredibly disturbing on a conceptual level. You may think that watching Lea Thompson try to seduce a midget in a duck suit would be pee-your-pants hilarious just on principle alone, but trust me, the idea itself is 10 times funnier than the execution, and without all of the uncomfortable subtext. In the comics, Howard and Bev’s relationship was rather sweet, one of the few things Howard allowed himself to get sentimental about; the issue of conflicting species was left intentionally vague. Contrast that to seeing movie Howard leer wolfishly at Lea Thompson’s admittedly fine caboose, and her putting the sleaziest moves I’ve ever seen on him (and I’ve been to college parties) and you’ve got a scene 100% guaranteed to make you want to claw your own eyes out of their sockets. Even more than you did before, I mean.

And then there’s the fact that comic Howard’s origin was pretty much irrelevant. After the initial issue, no time at all was devoted to recapping how he got to this dimension, and very little toward trying to get him home. Because frankly, it wasn’t important — his purpose was to raise awareness of the problems facing our society by having them incisively but amusingly expounded upon by a cartoon duck through a series of funny, surreal adventures.

By contrast, the movie takes a stereotypical “alien is brought to Earth, then has to stop other thing that’s brought to Earth” plot and just farces it up. I’ll admit, trying to translate Howard’s unique brand of adventures and directionless wandering to the silver screen is a tricky prospect, and the filmmakers may have felt like they needed a definitive, structured plot to help the movie hang together… but to me, that’s simply proof that Howard really doesn’t work as a movie, not an engraved invitation to change everything. If anything, a cable TV show MIGHT be able to do the character justice, but a feature film? I truthfully don’t see how they could have avoided making such drastic changes to Howard’s adventures, but man, that sure doesn’t excuse what we ended up with.

But enough subtlety, let me now be perfectly frank and honest — this movie disgusts me as a movie reviewer. It disgusts me as a comic book reader. And it disgusts me as a fan of (most of) George Lucas’s other work. It’s no wonder the guy disowned it; it’s atrociously bad in a way The Phantom Menace couldn’t achieve with a dozen Jar-Jar Binks’s. I’m sure the filmmakers knew what a piece of trash they were making because… well for God’s sake, how could they not?

Obviously it was intended to be a campy spoof (Jeffrey Jones — perennial “You Know, That Guy” — certainly seemed to have a great time hamming things up as the only good part of the movie), but then the question becomes: why Howard? You want to make that kind of movie, great, but why not use all-new characters, rather than preexisting ones with not the slightest thing in common with the film you want to make? I realize I keep belaboring the same old “That’s not how they did it in the comics!” point and probably sound frighteningly like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons (worst movie EVER), but so be it — you can’t turn something that good into something that bad and not expect comparisons. Howard’s comic succeeded because it meshed clever, surreal scenarios with thought-provoking discourse to produce something both original and highly entertaining. By contrast, the Howard movie mixes stupidly surreal situations with incredibly bad dialogue and stop-motion special effects to produce… well, one of the biggest box office flops of all time. But you knew that already.

In closing, let me say this: It’s a widely-held belief around the Mutant Reviewers offices that The Doom Generation is the worst movie ever made. That may well be so; but if it is, it’s solely because TDG was apparently meant to be a serious, thoughtful movie, while the people behind Howard the Duck at least knew they were making an incredibly dumb movie and played it to the hilt. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s not the slightest bit funny in its stupidity, however, which no amount of self-amused winking at the camera will change — when your idea of humor is lines like “No more Mr. Nice Duck!”, it’s time to take a step back and drastically reevaluate your life.

This film is worth seeing once, and once only, by the brave of heart and cast iron of stomach, to marvel at the sheer wretchedness of it and to gain street cred with other cult movie fans. Fair warning, though: if it’s your first exposure to the character of Howard the Duck, you may just become bored and dumbfounded… if, on the other hand, you’ve read some of the real Howard’s adventures, you might need to be physically restrained from attacking your TV screen. If at all possible, be sedated.

Didja notice?

  • How Howard can both talk and breathe in outer space? Impressive.
  • Howard’s movie posters include several “clever” duck-related spoofs of popular movies, including My Fair Chickadee and the new Indiana Drake movie, Breeders of the Lost Stork.
  • Yes, those are duck boobies. This movie can’t decide if it wants to be a tongue-in-cheek adult romp or a family-friendly comedy, so what’s our compromise? Duck boobies. Yeah.
  • Oh, Tim Robbins… THIS is where you got your big break? For shame, sir, for shame.
  • When you’re firing stuff from your eyes, shouldn’t you just automatically hit whatever you’re looking at? What’s with all the missing?

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