A scientific experiment unknowingly brings extraterrestrial life forms to the Earth through a laser beam. First is the cigar smoking drake Howard from the duck's planet. A few kids try to keep him from the greedy scientists and help him back to his planet. But then a much less friendly being arrives through the beam... Written by
Tom Zoerner <Tom.Zoerner@informatik.uni-erlangen.de>
At a time when most of Marvel Comics' characters were stuck in low budget TV and straight-to-video productions, Steve Gerber's relatively obscure Howard the Duck got the big budget treatment with none other than George Lucas as producer. The film was written by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who co-wrote "American Graffiti" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom", and directed by Huyck, with special effects by ILM. What could go wrong?
A lot, apparently. "Howard" was a critical and financial failure that deep-sixed the careers of Huyck and Katz and led to the cancellation of the duck's magazine. If the film had a moderately priced budget, it might have been forgotten as just another lightweight, trashy 1980s comedy and even turned a profit. Instead, the budget somehow ballooned to a then staggering $37,000,000 (almost as much as the entire "Star Wars" trilogy cost to make). Although other films lost more money and got worse reviews, the name "Howard the Duck" is still synonymous with "expensive turkey".
That said, the movie itself isn't as bad as it's reputation suggests. The plot revolves around the title character (voice by Chip Zien, played by various midgets in animatronic duck suits), a sarcastic talking duck from a planet a lot like Earth, except ducks evolved into the dominant life form. Howard is brought to Cleveland, Ohio when an experimental laser beam opens an interdimensional portal. There he befriends an aspiring rock singer (Leah Thompson) and a kooky lab assistant (Tim Robbins), and comes into conflict with various lowlifes, the police, and an evil demon that has possessed the body of a helpful scientist (Jeffrey Jones), all the while trying to get back home.
Gerber's original comic book series and a subsequent adult-oriented magazine weren't kids' stuff. They juxtaposed a funny animal character with bizarre villains and action more typical of Marvel's super-hero books, usually parodying comics, politics, and popular culture in the process. A sexual relationship between Howard and his human girlfriend Beverly was more than just implied. The "Howard the Duck" movie could have either toned down the more adult situations to create a family-friendly action-comedy, or gone straight for ribald satire and gotten an "R" rating. Instead, the filmmakers sought an uncomfortable middle ground that pleases no one. The script is not witty enough for adults and it is too sleazy and scary for young children. The endless duck puns become tiresome. There are, however, a few truly funny moments, such as Howard's shock at being served eggs, or his observation that "If God intended ducks to fly, he wouldn't have taken away our wings."
The direction is uneven. The reaction of several characters to meeting a talking alien duck seems muted given the circumstances. The special effects are also hit and miss. The animatronic duck suit cost millions, but the actors inside it add little personality. They could have at least waddled when they walked. The demonic Dark Lords of the Universe at the end of the film are portrayed with stop motion animation that is jerky and unrealistic even for the time (perhaps this was intentional, though, to provide a B-movie feel). However, while a bad movie all around, "Howard the Duck" at least stands out for its unique premise. Amidst a sea of formulaic mediocrity, an original idea, even if it's poorly developed, counts for something.
** out ****
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