Let’s talk about Howard the Duck.
In an online survey, I recently posited HTD as one of those guilty-pleasure flicks, something from your childhood you know is bad but you can’t help watching (and loving, because, let’s face it, you loved it when you were eight). Well, the other day, in Target, I happened across a Blu-Ray of Howard and realized I’d made my assertion without having actually seen the movie in a dozen or so years. So, on a whim, I bought it. And watched it. And you know what? I was wrong. It’s not so-bad-it’s-good.
It’s just plain good, hands down.
Here’s the thing: we live in a post-Guardians, post-Thor world, where talking raccoons from outer space and grim, hammer-wielding gods fight side by side to the mellow rhythms of Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights.” For better or worse, Marvel has ascended to the throne and rules over American moviegoers with a mostly benevolent (yet often forgettable) hand. And while much is made in the Blu-Ray supplements about George Lucas’s belief in Howard the Duck, something we might have all rolled our eyes at ten years ago, when Disney had yet to purchase Star Wars and fully course-correct the storytelling missteps of Uncle George’s prequels, this much is true: time and hindsight have a way of cooling tempers and revealing a wiser, steadier hand at work. No, there still isn’t much cinematic worth to be found in Attack of the Clones, but no one can ever accuse George Lucas of not having the long game in mind. A born iconoclast in sheep’s plaid, he broke onto the scene with a nostalgia-fueled space fantasy in the seventies, when the realism of Coppola and Scorsese ruled the mean streets of American cinema. “Just wait 25 years,” he told Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who made Howard the Duck in 1986 and were savaged by the critics. Indeed, by 2011, somewhere in Hollywood, a talking raccoon with a machine gun and a Brooklyn accent was in development.
James Gunn, of course, would take issue with the comparison. As a fan of Howard’s Marvel comic, he famously hates the movie, but his reasons have never made much sense to me (creepy eyelids?). The first name I thought of when re-watching Howard was, in fact, James Gunn. It seems to me the stellar Guardians franchise owes a small debt to Howard the Duck. A joke about a black light aboard the Milano, for instance, would be perfectly at home in a movie in which a space duck gets work at a hot-tub brothel in Cleveland. Which is to say: Uncle George was right. Howard the Duck was ahead of its time—by almost exactly 25 years.
Still, being prescient about what audiences will or won’t accept doesn’t equal greatness, so what makes Howard the Duck good, in my estimation?
For one thing, production value. A budget of thirty-eight million dollars is all on the screen, from the glorious stop-motion work of Phil Tippett to the incredible sound design of Ben Burtt. Also, there’s Howard’s expressive animatronic head, the pun-laden posters on his wall. His show-stopping opening flight through outer space. It’s one of Lucas’s favorite chestnuts, writ successful: special effects in service of story.
Second, the music: John Barry, of James Bond fame, is the composer, and his signature warmth and grandeur are present in the key themes. Also, the much-maligned punk rock soundtrack is actually pretty catchy. And give Lea Thompson props: she sings it all.
Third, the actors: they commit. Ed Gale’s performance as Howard is precise and delightful, and Lea Thompson is great. Every moment she’s on screen, she sells the idea that a girl could fall in love with a duck. Sure, Tim Robbins is still figuring himself out, but it’s fun to watch a character spring onto the screen in such a screwball fashion, then evolve into a dependable human sidekick (it’s a nifty twist on a moment, early in the film, when Philsy espouses his theory of duck evolution to Howard). And, of course, there’s the immensely gifted Jeffrey Jones, finding warmth and humanity in a scientist-turned-alien, perfectly at ease as both the helper character and the villain.
Finally, the script: it’s sharp and funny, tender and, yes, kind. And, of course, it’s weird. Very weird. But very human, too, which is something that often goes unsaid. Its characterization of Howard as a sarcastic hero with a warm heart is appealing, in particular his devotion to Beverly, but Katz and Huyck never let us forget: he’s an alien among us. And he has only one goal throughout the story—to get home. When he’s forced to make a choice between that goal and saving the human race, well, it’s an honestly earned moment. We believe in Howard’s fondness for us as a species, which is certainly an altogether ironic fact given audiences’ rejection of the character.
Ultimately, it’s not a perfect film, not by a long shot. It’s repetitive in its fight scenes between Howard and various thugs, and these are the moments when the limitations of costume and concept are on full display. Still, everyone’s working so hard to sell it, and it comes across as a genuine labor of delight and love. I can’t imagine how difficult this move was to make, or the heartbreak Katz and Huyck and Thompson and Gale must have felt when the world wasn’t ready for it. But they made it boldly, with a confidence that still shines. And George was there, too, believing in it just as much—and ignoring the critics, wise, aloof genius that he is.
For too long, I think, the arguments surrounding the picture have all related to taste and sexual hang-ups, the tensions we feel when seeing a tiny, duck-sized condom or the suggestion that a sex scene between a woman and a duck is about to take place. People missed the humor in these moments, maybe, I don’t know. As a kid, I found it fascinating, the idea that a duck even had sex appeal, whatever “sex appeal” was to eight-year-old me. Maybe it just meant Lea Thompson liked you, I don’t know. But it’s long past time we stop talking about the weird sex stuff as a flaw in the movie, or calling a duck with libido a pervert.
In 1986, audiences seemed to react to Howard the Duck as the movie equivalent of Joe Roma’s Cajun Sushi House: something on the menu for everyone, but no one’s got the stomach for it. We’re a more sophisticated audience these days, I think. So here’s hoping Howard the Duck gets taken off the standard rotation of “worst movies ever made” and held up for the truly ground-breaking, ahead-of-its-time fantasy-comedy-epic-sci-fi-action duck-woman romance it was.