Revisiting HOWARD THE DUCK: Is It Really THAT Bad???

In the summer of 1986 Universal Studios and Lucas Productions (yes, THAT Lucas Productions) released a film that may go down in history as one of the worst movies of all time. It featured an all-star cast, featuring Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones and Tim Robbins and had a budget of $35,000,000 (it reportedly grossed $16,295,774 in the United States according to the IMDB website). The story features Howard, a humanoid duck character from a planet much like earth whose predominant species were ducks instead of hairless apes.

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Howard The Duck opens with the title character coming home from a long day at work, checking his mail, having a beer and watching some television. All of a sudden the chair he is sitting in starts shaking and he is pulled from his apartment through a beam in space and brought to Cleveland, Ohio. Here he encounters the worst of the worst in humanity until he meets Beverly (Thompson), a wannabee rock star who treats him with respect. In trying to find out how Howard got here we are introduced to Beverly’s scientist friend Phil (Robbins) who then introduces us to Dr. Jenning (Jones), a scientist working on a laser spectroscope. It is this spectroscope that brought Howard to earth. When this machine is used again another being comes to earth, known as the Dark Overlord of the Universe, who possesses Dr. Jenning and is bent on taking over the world after using the spectroscope to bring down more Dark Overlords. It is up to Howard, Beverly and Phil to save the planet.

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The movie is based on the Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik who debuted in December of 1973 in the comic book Adventure Into Fear number 19. In 1976 Howard got his own title that ran for 31 issues and every few years a new limited run series is released featuring everyone’s favorite wise-cracking duck and his misadventures.

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The movie was widely panned upon its release though it does seem to have a bit of a cult following now. Recently it was released on Blu-ray. I myself have always liked this movie and upon seeing it again in this release I wanted to write because to be honest, it’s really not that bad of a movie.

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The script itself is fun and fast paced. It never lets up and is a great mix of comedy and adventure, though some of the comedy does fall short. Thankfully this only happens on occasion and overall I found this movie very satisfying and to me it has held up nicely all of these years, even after repeated viewings. I think one of the reasons that this movie got such bad reviews is that people just didn’t get it. They probably never read the comics and honestly didn’t know what to expect. If you go into it with a clear and open mind, you just may be pleasantly surprised!

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The cast is just wonderful. Lea Thompson as Beverly is in her prime here and looks absolutely stunning. Her chemistry with Howard is actually pretty convincing which must have been difficult to do considering who Howard is. Beverly sings in a rock band called Cherry Bomb and she did all of her own singing, which is actually really good! She has a great voice and stage presence and her songs are one of the highlights on the Howard The Duck soundtrack! The music is totally 80’s and since this was the time that I was in high school, I probably find it more appealing than most.

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Tim Robbins, though a little over-zealous, is perfect as Phil and his chemistry with Beverly and Howard are great. At times he comes off as more immature than his character’s age but he does mature as the movie progresses. The banter between Phil and Howard during the ultralight plane police chase is fun and one of the movie’s highlights.

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Jeffrey Jones is perfectly cast as Dr. Jenning. Before changing he is a very likeable character and his metamorphosis into the Dark Overlord is fantastic, thanks to some subtle makeup prosthetics and Jones’ acting ability.

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Many of the scenes are beautifully shot with great angles and the lighting is perfect. The ultralight plane police chase is fast and exciting and looks as though it was difficult to shoot. Jenning’s laboratory looks very realistic and ominous with the laser spectroscope a sight to behold.

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As much as I enjoy this movie though it is not without its faults. First off are the actors who play the secondary characters. When Howard first arrives in Cleveland he confronts two thugs who try to attack Beverly. They come across as goofy and more annoying than a threat. The acting is horrible and it takes away from what would’ve been a genuinely tense scene. Later, when Howard confronts the manager of Beverly’s band Cherry Bomb we see a group of low lifes that once again do not come across as a threat at all. They all come off as comic relief and it just doesn’t work. When Howard, Beverly and Dr. Jenning stop to grab something to eat after escaping the police, every single person in the restaurant is made up of poorly acted hicks with the only redeeming thing being that Jenning, as the Dark Overlord, attacks them all in much-deserved fashion.

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Lastly are the special effects. You would think that I am talking about the duck costume but I am not. In my opinion the costume is actually pretty good, even though it doesn’t hold true to the images from the comic book. The face has great expression, especially in the eyes, and the character actually grows on you.

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The main special effects complaint deals with the visual effects from Industrial, Light and Magic. George Lucas just came off of three highly successful Star Wars movies loaded with visual effects and those used in Howard The Duck are such a step down that it is insulting to the viewer. Most of the scenes in question feature Dr. Jenning as the Dark Overlord and his ability to shoot beams from his eyes. These effects should be second nature to ILM. When Jenning’s eyes start to glow, a very basic effect, the “glow” is not even properly placed over the actor’s eyes. You are basically adding a solid glowing color to the actor’s eyes covering the whites and pupil. This effect extends unevenly beyond this area and looks horrible. The eye beams themselves vary in quality from poor to decent but with a company like ILM you would expect them to be flawless.

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Lastly is the Dark Overlord himself, after escaping Jenning’s body. The actual design is very cool and the animation used is very similar to what Ray Harryhausen was very famous for. The problem is Harryhausen, for a fraction of the cost, would’ve done a lot better. The movements are ok but the creature is lit in such a way that doesn’t match its surroundings so it is always evident that it is a poorly executed special effect. There are motion blurs that should not be there and many of the scenes featuring the creature and the live actors do not match up that well. It’s really a shame too as this battle is the finale of the movie and it really should’ve been explosive and exciting. The quality of the effects is more evident now in high-definition on Blu-ray.

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Don’t let the poor job on the part of Industrial, Light and Magic deter you though from a very fun film. Howard The Duck, now 30 years old, is a great addition to the Marvel Universe and should be a part of everyone’s movie library. With the appearance of Howard once again at the end of 2014’s Guardians Of The Galaxy at least we know the character is not dead. Watch this movie with no expectations and you will have a good time. It is after all a talking duck!

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~David Albaugh

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2 thoughts on “Revisiting HOWARD THE DUCK: Is It Really THAT Bad???

  1. As a big fan of the Howard the Duck comics, I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed the movie as much as I did. It was a film that I found to be a lot of fun. I also agree with most of your comments regarding the movie’s strengths and weaknesses. Lea Thompson was indeed gorgeous in this (love the last photo, BTW), and could really rock out! And the other major cast members were great as well. Perhaps if it had not been a post-Star Wars trilogy George Lucas and ILM, the movie may have been better received. But overall, I found it to be an enjoyable and satisfying little film. Certainly not a blockbuster, but a great addition to any video library.

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