Forgotten Films is a semi-regular feature on Film Junk where we explore interesting movies that have fallen off the radar or slipped through the cracks over the years.
Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but George Lucas has been associated with far more dubious projects in the past — movies like the 1980s Marvel comic book adaptation Howard The Duck. Fortunately for Lucas, he was able to erase this dud from our minds for over 20 years by foregoing any sort of official DVD release. Then just this year, for some reason, he had a change of heart.
The most likely explanation is that he was running out of Star Wars special editions to re-release but maybe he realized that the movie did have a cult following and there was actually some sort of demand for it. Personally, I felt a need to revisit the movie mainly for the sake of nostalgia, and to see if after all these years it was really as terrible as everyone says it is. I must confess that I was surprised to find that Howard The Duck was actually pretty watchable and, while far from a masterpiece, it still makes a fun piece of ’80s fluff.
I guess it’s important to note right off the bat that George Lucas didn’t actually direct this — he was merely the executive producer. The majority of the credit/blame falls on the shoulders of Willard Huyck (co-writer of American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), who never did direct another movie afterward. Released back in 1986, the movie was based on the Marvel comic book series about a talking humanoid duck from an alternate dimension who finds himself accidentally transported to Earth — “Cleve Land”, to be exact.
In some ways you might say the movie was ahead of its time, in the sense that it created a comic book movie that was more for adults than kids. True, it was still rated PG, and true, it’s not nearly as edgy as the original comic book. But when you get a brief flash of bizarre duck nudity within the first 5 minutes you know you’re in for something a little bit weird and demented. Indeed, the movie later flirts with the notion of a human-on-duck sex scene, and although it’s mostly played for laughs, there is still something a little bit odd about seeing a sexy Lea Thompson in her underwear cooing over a guy in a duck costume. You’ve gotta give her credit, since she sells the scene (and indeed, a lot of the movie), but considering that she did this movie the year after Back to the Future, you have to wonder if it was the wisest career move.
There’s something I miss about movies like this and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where they actually bring cartoon characters into a live action setting by using a man in a suit (Howard was voiced by Chip Zien, but the suit was actually worn by a variety of stunt actors). Nowadays this would all be done with CG, and I can certainly understand why, but it’s still a little more satisfying to have something real there on screen for the other actors to interact with. I realize that the duck suit is the thing that makes most people instantly dismiss this movie, but for what it is, I think it works. I mean, he’s a duck for crying out loud… how realistic do you want it to be?
Yes, the special effects are a mixed bag. The stop motion for the dark overlord at the end is just as dated as the exoskeleton at the end of The Terminator, but it’s imaginative and, for its time, technically impressive. Some of the make-up effects are also decent but then again, it did cost $37 million to make. What’s even more interesting is that the commercial failure of the movie forced Lucas to sell his computer animation division to Steve Jobs, which would eventually go on to become Pixar!
Perhaps the best part of the movie is Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), who is both hilarious and creepy as the scientist who gets possessed by one of the dark overlords. (His performance might have been even more scary had we known he would eventually go on to become a registered sex offender.) The movie really picks up once it has a clear villain, and even if some of the action set pieces like the pedal plane chase never quite reach a Steven Spielberg level of grace, they are far from inept.
It’s also worth mentioning the fact that Tim Robbins has a pretty major role in the film as the nerdy Phil Blumburtt. It certainly wasn’t a breakout role for him (he also starred in Top Gun the same year), but it’s pretty surreal seeing him ham it up as an awkward lab assistant at such a young age.
Howard the Duck is certainly a movie that is steeped in ’80s cheese, from the corny puns to the big hair to the synthetic pop music, which carries over into the soundtrack featuring Lea Thompson’s fictional band Cherry Bomb. Even if you can’t stand the music in the movie, you have to admit that the grand finale featuring a killer guitar solo from Howard himself is so off-the-wall hilarious that it is the perfect conclusion. It certainly seems to have echoes of Marty McFly’s shredding in Back to the Future, at any rate.
In my opinion, the movie is equal parts Ghostbusters, TMNT and Men in Black, and I really think there are some redeeming elements that make it worth revisiting. I’m not saying it’s a diamond in the rough, so to speak — there’s certainly a reason for the reputation that it has gained over the years. Still, it’s not quite as terrible as you might think, and if you can appreciate a little “blast from the past”, you might want to throw this on and test the waters for yourself.
(By the way, you can also save yourself some money and watch the movie online in its entirely on Hulu.)