Howard The Turkey? Or a misunderstood satirical comedy? Dave Golder examines the evidence in this archive feature
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 screamed “Egg on face potential!” 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.
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’ overheads 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. CG wasn't the answer.
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.
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.
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. Conversely, 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 ”? Even the Chuckle Brothers would reject gags like that.
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 planet 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 and the sorry excuse for a plot kicks in, the film 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.
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.