Howard The Duck Revisited

Years ago SFX used to run a feature called "Isn’t It About Time You Gave Another Chance?" which was very popular, but ran its course. However, it was recently resurrected briefly in a couple of SFX specials. Since we had a few emails from people who wanted to see the feature but didn't want to splash out on a George Lucas special, here’s your chance to see what you missed, with "Isn't It About Time You Gave Howard The Duck Another Chance?"

Prosecution’s opening address: The madness of King George clearly knew no bounds when Lucas gave the go-ahead to this feather-brained fiasco. Even on paper the idea of live-action film about a talking duck should have the “Egg on face!” meter swinging into the dangerzone. But no, Lucas greenlit the production, which then at every stage – from dire script and dodgy performances to aurally-offensive synth rock soundtrack and uneasy mix of adult and infantile humour – proved that you could take a bad idea and make it infinitely worse. Nothing about the film works. And the festering boil on this arse-end of cinematic quality is the duck suit itself: it’s about as realistic as a builder’s quote, with less than a tenth of the aesthetic charm of the same builder’s bum cleavage.

Defence’s opening address: To quote a Howard the Duck fan site (yes, my learned colleague, such things do exist) the film “isn’t bad, it’s just not conventionally good”. To say it’s irredeemably bad ignores some stunning special work – especially at the finalé – some great performances and a script which at times is almost daring and experimental. The fact that it starred a talking duck was a gift for lazy journalists in search of a soundbite. Indeed many were referring to the film as Howard the Turkey before they’d even seen it. The “turkey” reputation became a self-fulfilling prophecy meaning that the film had to fight harder than most to prove its worth. Granted, it is no masterpiece, but as a slice of ’80s fantasy action, to a large degree, it delivers the goods.

Prosecution: But it clearly was a turkey. It cost $37 million to make and made back $38 million in box office around the world. Take away distributors’ overhead and marketing costs, and it clearly lost money.

Defence: Just because a film flops doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. Blade Runner never made its money back, and everybody loves that. And ironically, at the time, Howard was the biggest grossing movie ever based on a Marvel comic character.

Howard the Duck was simply ahead of its time. The Duck costume isn’t great, despite reputedly costing over $2 million to create, but you can’t help thinking that if the film had the benefit of a CG duck, it would have been much better accepted. People just couldn’t see past the duck to some of the other great entertainment the film had to offer.

Prosecution: But a few years later the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies were a huge success, using similar prosthetic costumes.

Defence: But turtles were easier to anthropormorphise. Lucas himself has gone on record saying, “We clearly backed the wrong animal.”

Prosecution: The problem with the duck wasn’t simply the suit. The character of Howard just wasn’t likeable or consistent enough.

Defence: Oh dear. Are we going down the “it wasn’t like the original comic” route? Never a good argument. Why should a film be like its source material? It should be judged on its own merits.

Prosecution: Actually, no, I wasn’t going to argue that, but I’m glad you raised it. The film was based on a well-respected Marvel Comic created by writer Steve Gerber in 1973. Yes, it featured a duck called Howard, plucked from his own world and unceremoniously dumped in ours, but that’s about where the similarity ends. Gerber’s strip was a clever satire, both of superhero comics and contemporary America. Howard was a smart, curmudgeonly, cigar-chomping malcontent – think Victor Meldrew with feathers and a sex drive.

The problem with the movie is partly that it plays lip service to the comic Howard – he does indeed light a cigar at one point, and occasionally has some ballsy dialogue – but the characterisation is all over the place. More often he’s portrayed as a sweet innocent with gooey eyes and a squeaky voice (which manages to neuter the vitriol in even the more sassy lines).

Coming back to Turtle comparisons, there’s also the problem that he’s just not cool. The Turtles were dressed as Ninjas, ate pizza and talked like teenagers. Howard has a variety of costumes through the film, from middle-aged cardy to satin-clad pimp – none of them cool.

Defence: He’s a hoodie at one point!

Prosecution: For about five minutes. It also didn’t help that he was played by eight different people.

Defence: And what Earthly difference does that make? They’re all inside the same costume.

Prosecution: Because performance is partially about body language, and Howard’s is all over the place. It’s a subliminal thing – audiences may not consciously note it – but it’s another barrier to giving Howard a consistent, endearing character.

Defence: I’ve already conceded, though, that the Duck suit was a problem. We should not concentrate on that to the point where it blinds us to the film’s positive elements.

Prosecution: The end credits, presumably?

Defence: That’s a cheap shot.

Prosecution: At a large slow-moving target. A duck shoot, perhaps? (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

Defence: Ignoring that last comment, surely the Prosecution cannot deny the brilliance of Phil Tippet’s stop motion Overlord monster at the film’s climax? This was the man responsible for the AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back, and it’s a shame that his equally impressive beast here is overlooked because of the film’s reputation. Part insect, part Cthulhian nightmare it deserves its place in a monsters’ hall of fame.

Prosecution: It’s a bit cartoony.

Defence: That simply goes with the style of the film.

Prosecution: If that were the intention, it should resemble a really big poo. Okay, the prosecution concedes that the Overlord is impressive, but that hardly saves the film.

Defence: Then what about some fine performances? A young Tim Robbins makes a charismatic boffin while Jeffrey Jones – the principal from Ferris Bueller – is superb as a scientist possessed by one of the Overlords.

Prosecution: It’s certainly a no-holds-barred performance, but don’t you find it a bit unnerving watching it knowing that the actor in question is now on America’s sex offenders list?

Defence: That evidence is irrelevant and inadmissible. It has no bearing on his performance here. Also, Lea Thompson makes a fine, gutsy Beverly, Howard’s… erm… Howard’s… er…

Prosecution: Yes, how are you going to describe her involvement without mentioning bestiality?

Defence: There is no firm evidence of bestiality in the film.

Prosecution: No? Then how do you describe the scene in which Beverly, dressed in just a shirt and skimpy knickers tries to seduce Howard as they lie on a bed together?

Defence: Hmmmm… knickers.

Prosecution: If the Defence could please get his mind out of the gutter.

Defence: Ahem. Yes. But now you mention it, Lea Thompson in her knickers is a definite plus point in the film. Try refuting that.

Prosecution: Granted. But she undeniably ends up as Howard’s girlfriend, and that intimates bestiality at the very least. And if nothing else, the bed scene happens after she’s only known him for a day and a half, so if she’s not a duck fu… er, fornicator, then at the very least she’s a slapper. Interestingly, in Back to the Future Thompson had played the ’50s incarnation of Marty McFly’s mum. You may recall this involved her having a crush on Marty, her own future son. So Thompson’s two best-known roles involved potential incest and potential bestiality. That’s some record.

Defence: Nevertheless, she’s a great, feisty, female lead (I shall refrain form calling her a “chick” despite the obvious temptation). One can only wonder at how some of the other women who auditioned for the role may have turned out – Tori Amos, Belinda Carlisle and Phoebe Cates.

Prosecution: Hopefully if Carlisle or Amos had been in the film they would have performed their own songs rather than those ghastly synth-rock ditties written for Thompson and her band by Thomas “She Blinded Me With Science” Dolby. It’s hard to believe a character like Beverly would front a band so unremittingly bland.

Defence: That’s a mere matter of taste. Some people love ’80s music. It’s musical marmite, and not what’s on trial here.

Prosecution: But surely the Prosecution can tender the ’80s haircuts as evidence?

Defence: Sadly, yes. The Defence would also like to propose the opening sequence, set on Duckworld, as evidence of the film’s better qualities.
Prosecution: What? You mean the bit where you get to see naked, feathery duck boobies and a compendium of the worst duck puns ever? What does that faux Raiders poster say? “Breeders of the Lost Stork, starring Indiana Drake, the new hero from the creators of Beaks and Fowl Wars”? That’s sub-Chuckle Brothers quality.

Defence: The joy isn’t in the calibre of any one pun. It’s the sheer volume of the duck references, which en masse, create a fully-realised alternative universe. The attention to detail is quite astounding. Copies of PlayDuck are scattered on coffee tables, Rolling Egg magazine has an interview with Willy Waddle, the TV channels are populated by duck stars… even the world itself – in a direct lift from the comic – is egg-shaped. The puns are bad, but they are so all-pervading and brazen the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It’s an extremely effective opening…

Prosecution: It might have been if the duck suits weren’t so awful. And I say again: duck boobs? Not once, but twice? No thank you. This is indicative of a dodgy trend in a movie which also has Howard scratching his balls, Beverly discovering his little duck condom,
Tim Robbins saying that he doesn’t have time for sex and a gag about sex change operations.

Defence: What’s wrong with that? It’s not really a children’s film.

Prosecution: Then why does it star a talking duck and have a custard pie fight? The film is too adult for kids, too infantile for adults, and too uncool for the inbetweenies. It simply doesn’t know who it’s aimed at. The first half does have moments of (botched) satire, but halfway through, when the Overlords arrive, the sorry excuse for a script kicks in it transforms into a trite ’70s Disney adventure flick with slapstick chases and comedy face pulling. The film tries to have a Buckaru Banzai vibe but ends up more like Condorman with smutty gags.

Defence: And some superb ILM-provided FX.

Prosecution: Granted it looks very good at times, but the script is simply a mess. It was written by buddies by Lucas’s buddies, husband and wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who had provided the scripts for the Lucas-directed American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (unquestionably the least artistically successful of in the Indy series). Huyck was a Howard the Duck fan and it was his idea to make the movie and ultimately he ended up directing it (with little sense of style, pace or panache). Notably it was the last film he ever directed. Surprise, surprise.

Defence: You’re being overly harsh there. The movie was competently directed and has its moments of flair. Huyck seems comfortable with action and it’s a shame the film killed off his directing ambitions, as there are certainly worse directors out there.

Prosecution: So the defence’s main case is – it could have been worse?!
That is a concept that doesn’t bear thinking about.