Howard the Duck

June 27, 2011

A friend of the three-foot duck hero of Howard the Duck looks him right in the bill and comments, “I’ll bet you were born from a hard-boiled egg.”

That’s the best of the movie’s duck jokes, mainly because it aptly describes the prickly waterfowl protagonist. Howard T. Duck, a Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber, is an outspoken bird given to no-nonsense jibes and haughty pronouncements.

He has a right to be perturbed. He’s sitting at home in an easy chair, pounding a brewski, when he is suddenly pulled from his duck planet to our Earth, through some sort of laser-beam, force-field thing. To make matters worse, he lands in Cleveland.

He’s befriended by a rock singer (Lea Thompson) and examined by a would-be scientist (Tim Robbins), who sees a Nobel Prize in the offing. Then Howard’s led to the man who can send him back to his home planet: the scientist (Jeffrey Jones, the slow-burning principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) who built the laser-beam thing.

The first half of the film is taken up with Howard’s predictable difficulties adjusting to the human world. He tries to hold a job, demonstrates “quack fu” on those who would harass him, and dabbles in a love scene with Thompson.

The movie then shifts gears, into an extended chase, complicated by a laser-beam malfunction that zaps a dark overlord of the universe into Jones’ body. This prompts a bunch of spectacular special effects, as Jones changes shape and creates mayhem around him, and Howard and his friends try to save the world from this alien menace.

All these special effects, and the creation of Howard himself, come to us through the wizardry of George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (Lucas is also the film’s executive producer). It’s all first-class work. Howard, primarily embodied by Ed Gale, but credited to a host of actors and technicians, is every bit as expressive and complex a piece of machinery as E.T.

Lucas’s old film-school chums, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, teamed as director and producer, respectively, and wrote the script. The scripts they’ve written for Lucas—American Graffiti and Indiana Jones at the Temple of Doom—were fine, but the movies they’ve made as a director-producer combo have been less impressive; French Postcards went nowhere, and Best Defense was perhaps the worst major-studio comedy of the last decade.

They’ve fared better with Howard, although the film has its problems. The schizophrenic structure, for starters, plus the dumb, illogical opening scene, in which Howard’s planet is seen as a collection of duck variations on Earth products (some easy laughs, but nonsensical).

The funniest scene takes place in a roadside diner, where Jones is transforming into the dark overlord, hissing malevolent pronouncements about the impending doom of the Earth. Naturally, a waitress mistakes him for a TV evangelist.

Most important, Huyck and Katz succeed in making Howard an unsentimental duck, and that’s the key to enjoying the film. Rather than being overly cutesy, he retains his obstreperous edge. It’s not surprising; if you had to endure this many duck jokes, you’d be a fowl mood too.


First published in the Herald, August 5, 1986

Before the movie came out there was no hint its title would become synonymous with Worst Movies of All Time, although that is quickly (almost within a week or so) what happened. Mostly that’s because the movie flopped, and also because the title sounded stupid to most people, therefore it must be a terrible film. But seriously, Howard the Duck looks like Grand Illusion compared to Best Defense, the Huyck-Katz opus I cite here. (I actually have a small residual fondness for the engagingly cast French Postcards, one of those semester-in-Europe movies.) Howard the Duck isn’t very good, but it’s a long way from the bottom. Usage footnote: This was back when I still used “schizophrenic” in the lazy old way that people use it to mean “split personality.” That’s not what it means, so I don’t use it like that anymore.