Universal // 1986 // 111 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // March 9th, 2009
"He's our leader!" -- George Lucas
The cosmos...countless worlds upon worlds...worlds without end. In these galaxies, every possible reality exists, and what is reality on any world is mere fantasy on all others. Here, all is real and all is illusion. What is, what was, and what will be start here with the words...IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS Howard The Duck!
On the planet of DuckWorld, Howard T. Duck (Ed Gale, Spaceballs) comes home after a long day of advertising work. Hoping to just relax with a beer, a cigar, and the latest issue of Playduck magazine, Howard's privacy is compromised by a spectroscope ray from Earth that transports him to the seventh circle of Hell...or, in this case, the New Wave punk section of Cleveland. Trapped in a world he never made, Howard is immediately scorned and spit on, kicked violently to the curb, forcing the poor little guy to hide in a garbage can.
Enter Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson, Back To The Future), a young, sexy, up-and-coming rock singer who's attacked by two sleazy goons while walking home. Reluctantly, Howard helps her with his "quack-fu" skills, and thus Beverly takes this lost alien duck to her apartment. After getting to know each other, Beverly realizes Howard needs serious help, so she enlists the services of wacky lab assistant/janitor Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins, Mystic River). Eventually, Howard discovers he was the victim of an astronomical experiment gone wrong, with Dr. Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones, Amadeus) accepting responsibility. Howard's happy to hear he can go home...until Dr. Jenning morphs into the supremely evil Dark Overlord of the Universe!
It's impossible to grasp the confusing nature of childhood. Growing up exposed to a wide variety of films, I sometimes question how I could have responded to some films so positively even when they were -- and still are -- critically reviled. One of them was Disney's Pete's Dragon, which remains a personal favorite even when it's still dismissed as a sorry clone of the studio's earlier masterpieces. Another is Return To Oz which got pretty much the opposite reaction of the original Wizard, and yet I consider it -- in some ways -- actually better, considering it was more true to L. Frank Baum's world. Yet, the cream of the guilty pleasure crop has always been Howard The Duck, the 1986 oddity that didn't do executive producer George Lucas any financial favors, to say the least. The film wasn't just a bomb, it was a mega-bomb, one that rivaled other major disasters such as Heaven's Gate and Ishtar.
Then, a funny thing happened. Like other films elected into that special category of cult cinema, Howard The Duck was re-discovered on video. Time was extremely kind, allowing the feathered fiasco to take flight, be played multiple times, and ultimately be embraced. The legion of fans is now bigger than you think -- so big in fact that petitions (too many to count) appeared on the Web, all demanding the hairless apes at Universal to release the film on DVD. According to Box Office Mojo, its $37 million budget has since been matched by lifetime grosses; international audiences were largely responsible for the turnaround, and they were blessed with a DVD release last year -- sans bonus features. Clearly, something had to be done to satisfy the adoring fans here in the U.S., especially since illegal sellers were raking in thousands in "duck dollars" by providing cheap VHS transfers. Would Universal ever listen? And even if they did, would they give the film at least some respect despite its negative reputation?
In the summer of 2008, I was blessed with the opportunity to interview Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, the producer-director team behind Howard The Duck. My intention was to receive some background information on another film they worked on (1979's French Postcards), which they pleasantly obliged. Near the end, however, I broke down and revealed my love of the Duck, even providing a true story that more or less vindicated how loved the film is now...at least in military circles. (You can read all about it in the Accomplices section.) Not only were they taken aback, they were a little surprised that Universal hadn't done anything as of yet in terms of a DVD release. Jump ahead a year later, and we now have a Special Edition; personally, I couldn't have asked for better birthday present.
Many of you are probably asking how I could possibly praise the "dreadful" Duck on any level. Nostalgia would be too easy to answer, but it's still a cause I must acknowledge; after all, I did get into it as a kid. Quite simply, the movie is brilliantly bizarre and wonderfully whacked-out, so much so it ends up being a hilarious, twisted experience. Despite its tendency to rely on an endless stream of duck puns (courtesy of screenwriters Huyck and Katz), much of Howard's dialogue is insanely -- and intentionally -- sarcastic. Many complained the character lacked the sharp, satirical edge that Steve Gerber gave it in the late-'70s Marvel comic, instead being toned-down to George Lucasian-sensibilities. Even Gerber himself allegedly was disgusted by Lucas' treatment despite the fact it brought the character back into the spotlight after Disney sued him over similarities between Howard and Donald Duck. Perhaps Lucas wasn't the right one to adapt the comic, as the weird hybrid of absurdist adult humor and family-friendly cuteness caused many to question what audience Howard The Duck was really for. The film's PG rating was especially eyebrow-raising at the time because of the rather extreme sexual overtones, including suggested bestiality.
Laughs aside, I simply believe Howard The Duck's initial reception was harsh to the point of overkill. As Gloria Katz says in the bonus features, "it's a movie about a talking duck from outer space, it's not supposed to be an existential experience!" How can any sane individual take this film seriously? If you really think about it, the film's gloriously goofy attitude is self-confessed and always evident, so how can one truly hate it? It simply wants you to sit back, wing it, and (at the very least) try to enjoy it. Sure, it may make Dumb And Dumber and Tropic Thunder both resemble Oscar-winning tearjerkers, but so what? If you catch Howard with the right frame of mind and upbeat mood, you might find yourself laughing as much as its present-day cult audience. Film buffs should also find at least some of the in-jokes amusing; the DuckWorld sequence is chock full of them, including posters for such films as Breeders Of The Lost Stork and Splashdance. Other inside references you may miss are a quick shot of a kid wearing an Empire Strikes Back t-shirt and the town Howard and Blumburtt fly over near the end is actually the same one American Graffiti (Huyck and Katz wrote the film with George Lucas) was shot at.
It's not impossible to find some technical merits here as well. The special effects, courtesy of Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, are certainly primitive when compared to modern-day films, but one must remember this was made years before the CGI Revolution. Some of the them hold up quite well, but many of them show their age...which only makes the film all the more fun on its unashamedly silly level! The make-up, especially for Dr. Jenning's transformation into the Dark Overlord, is impressive and remains creepy (something which parents had taken note of as well). Even the duck suit, while not as expressive or detailed as one would like, is excellent and, here again, serves the film well. The scorpion-like puppet used for the Dark Overlord was created by wizard Phil Tippett (RoboCop), and the film's energetic score was done by the great John Barry (Body Heat). Plus, even if the songs (many of them performed by Beverly's all-female rock band Cherry Bomb...a cheesy '80s name if there ever was one) are very much products of their time in terms of synthesizers, they were done by none other than Thomas Dolby.
Lea Thompson is often cited as the one bright spot by most critics who've panned the film. If you ask me, they are still not giving her enough credit. Truth is she worked her butt off and was committed to this character, refusing to make Beverly a virtual pinhead. Sure, she's eventually pushed into damsel-in-distress mode (complete with a lot of screaming), but she also has an abundance of charm and spunk underneath it all. She actually does her own singing, and evidently worked endless hours behind the scenes to become a rock star, one in which Thompson herself describes as "a cross between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper." Plus, Lea was certainly a trooper in her willingness to traipse around in her underwear...an image which admittedly became etched in my memory, second only to Bo Derek's run on the beach in 10 as Hottest Scene On Film Without Actual Nudity.
Then there is the supporting cast, which includes an early role for future Oscar-winner Tim Robbins. His zany character isn't for everyone's taste (or patience, for that matter), but I applaud him for his off-the-wall enthusiasm. What's a little disturbing is how Robbins becomes slightly evil at times, with his get-rich-quick schemes making his character almost totally unlikable as opposed to unbearable according to the general consensus. Then again, call me nuts all you want (if you haven't already, that is) but I actually think his role as Blumburtt expanded his range more than the role he had in Top Gun, which came out the same year. The same also goes for Jeffrey Jones, whose iconic turn in Ferris Bueller may be more remembered, but he pulls out all the stops in what is essentially a dual role here as Dr. Jenning and as the Dark Overlord of the Universe. Just watch him in the sushi sequence in which he skips from amusement to menace within seconds, while also delivering his lines with growling grandeur. Finally, even though we never physically see him, Ed Gale does a phenomenal job acting in Howard's suit, while Chip Zien (United 93) provides the character's voice.
Credit must be given to Universal for finally giving us Howard on DVD, no matter how long overdue it is. The visual quality may not be pristine, but it's light years better than any previous release, legal or otherwise. Presented for the first time in an anamorphic print, there is a substantial amount of grain in the DuckWorld sequence and other points throughout, but overall the picture is quite clean, if not sharp. Colors, black levels, and flesh tones are far from spectacular but all more than acceptable at the very least. Things are much better on the audio front, with the soundtrack re-mixed in 5.1 Surround Sound; the Dolby/Cherry Bomb songs rock hard, filling up your speakers and bass. The Ben Burtt sound effects are also treated with respect, with the Dark Overlord's destruction scenes given appropriate sonic boom. Universal also provides some English SDH subtitles as well as nice DVD packaging. On a side note, they kind of contradict themselves on the back case: the studio calls it "a hidden treasure the whole family can enjoy," yet they also felt the need to include an additional warning below the PG-rating, stating that "certain portions of this picture may be unsuitable for younger children." Sheesh!
As for the bonus features, those hoping for more duck titties or love scenes between Beverly and Howard will be disappointed. What we do have are a selection of featurettes, with two serving as newly-produced retrospectives. The nearly half-hour long "A Look Back At Howard The Duck," promises just what its title implies, with interviews with Huyck, Katz, Thompson, Jeffrey Jones, and Ed Gale. Blending behind-the-scenes footage, vintage photos, and film clips, it's a satisfactory overview of the film's somewhat stressed, complicated production. "Releasing The Duck," is essentially a 12-minute extension, covering post-production, the catastrophic release and cult resurrection. The absence of Lucas and Robbins is unfortunate, if not unexpected. Still, those who do come out to speak are frank and down-to-earth in their comments; Thompson, especially, eschews how much she learned about the film business at a young age, having just come off a megahit (Back To The Future) and being treated to the flip side. While a commentary with Huyck & Katz would have been terrific, the featurettes seem to do their job and the interviews are full of fascinating info.
Rounding out the extras are several vintage, EPK-style featurettes which match the Duck's sarcasm to the beak. The speakers -- including Robbins, other members of the Cherry Bomb band, and selected crew members -- basically pretend Howard is real and has called upon Huyck and Katz to "tell his story." Both hysterically (and historically) interesting, these segments are definitely worth checking out, if only to see Lucas in the background looking serious (or is that scared?) about the project. Among other things, the stunts, effects and music is glossed over in detail, along with more footage behind-the-scenes. Finally, we have several grainy teaser trailers.
Believe me when I say it's not easy to love a film that is generally regarded as one of the worst ever made. I'm more than willing to explain why many hold that opinion, but I'm not going to because virtually every other review out there has exhausted itself in its negative tirades. As far as I'm concerned, they are all doin' too much toot! I'm not ashamed to say I love this "rotten egg" in which Lucas, Huyck, and Katz laid, and I'm happy to be among the film's most ardent fans.
Common perception is that George Lucas is embarrassed by the Duck's existence. I can't speak from him, but what is noted by Katz is that he once said the film will eventually be re-discovered a quarter of a century later in a much-more positive light. Whether he was joking or not, I'm sure Lucas is as surprised as anyone else of the film's fan base, even if it is a mere fraction of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones brood.
The ultimate irony when it comes to Howard The Duck is Howard's unwelcome visit to Earth and the journey he goes on remarkably parallels the movie's own 23-year history! In the beginning, it was looked at as a strange alien...rejected, neglected, scorned, and despised. Many of the human characters in the film could be mistaken for the critics who were ruthless in their negative criticism, refusing to give the little guy a break. This over-the-top, unfair skewering is exactly why some felt sorry for it, recognizing there was fun to be had in watching it multiple times. A couple of generations later, the film has a loyal audience (like the one at Cherry Bomb's final concert) who cheer for Howard while everyone else just shakes their heads in disbelief.
Thanks to Universal -- as well as Huyck and Katz -- we are no longer asking, "Whatever happened to Quack?" Plus, at a retail price of under $10 at Amazon, you can't ask for a better deal. I whole-heartedly recommend Howard The Duck: Special Edition for those willing to give the film a second chance as well as newcomers.
Every duck has his limit, and the critical scum have pushed him over the line. Howard is free to go to rock down the house and consummate his relationship with Beverly. Any and all appeals will be denied.
Court is adjourned!
Review content copyright © 2009 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* New Featurettes
* Archival Featurettes
* Teaser Trailers
* Cinema Verdict interview with Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz