Criminally Neglected: Howard the Duck (1986) - Reviewed

Can a critical and commercial disaster of a film upon initial release be ripe for reappraisal decades later?  Such seems to be the case for the likes of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and of course Willard Huyck’s Howard the Duck.  While many remain steadfast in their disdain for the film that facilitated MCA/Universal Vice President Frank Price’s resignation from the studio and the sale of Lucasfilm’s CGI animation division which later became Pixar, over the last few decades Howard the Duck’s reputation evolved from curious object to bona fide cult favorite.  Initially intended to be an animated feature ala Ralph Bakshi who would have been right at home with this sort of material, due to contractual obligations Howard the Duck ultimately evolved into a live action feature drawing from many various iterations of the character. 

Loosely based upon Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik’s comic book series of the same name and cited as among the earliest Marvel movie adaptations, one wonders how a technically brilliant and painstaking production for 1986 would play in a post-Guardians of the Galaxy cinematic universe were it made today.  Made at a time when practical effects were the mainstay and CGI was still in it’s infancy, the anthropomorphic duck is designed as realistically as a fantastical character possibly could which proved to be both a point of admiration and target for derision for most critics and audiences.  

Things are about to get a little weird. Don't mind my feathers. 

Incidentally, the titular Howard cameos at the tail end of Guardians with a character design closer to the source than what Huyck and Lucas came up with.  After a lawsuit from the creator himself claiming copyright infringement alongside threats of litigation from Disney due to the similarities between Howard and Disney’s own Donald Duck, the character design underwent some subtle changes including giving Howard pants. Whether Howard the Duck deserved the ‘cinematic black hole’ reputation branded upon it in 1986 remains open to debate with many further still contending, good or bad, that Huyck and producer Gloria Katz missed the mark by deviating from the source.  Based upon a source clearly intended for adult readers, the decision to jettison much of the satire and surrealism in favor of a more family friendly product definitely works against the film by creating tonal inconsistencies and uncertainty about which age group the film is aimed at. 

On the surface it looks like a PG rated family flick until we see the titular Howard reading Playduck magazine in a sleazy spa with a more-than-slightly unsettling image of a topless female duck in a bathtub, an image often censored for TV broadcast.  Later still Howard the Duck hastily touches on the interspecies sexual relations between the duck and his human girlfriend Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson fresh off of Back to the Future fame).  One must consider the absurdist adult humor at play in the comics but seen in the film, we’re not sure whether to chuckle or scream.  The absence of the snarky humor inherent in the central character, instead opting for a one-trick duck pun that’s carried over for the entire film, doesn’t help matters.

One thing’s for sure, Howard the Duck is messy but far from meritless.  What does work, however, are the brilliant set pieces and visual effects bringing the two-dimensional cartoon character into a three-dimensional flesh and blood being in our world.  Many point to the facial expressions of Howard as being stunted and unnatural, but upon closer inspection are startlingly animate for 1986.  Whether you like Howard the Duck or not has nothing to do with the state of the art visual effects which still hold up remarkably well today and even better the CGI heavy effects work adorning George Lucas’ prequel Star Wars trilogy.  Even if you hate the film, the scope and awesome wonderment of the visual effects are undeniable. 

Take for instance the “Dark Overlord of the Universe” inhabited by Jeffrey Jones’ mad scientist Dr. Walter Jenning, the obvious inspiration for Edgar the Bug (Vincent D’Onofrio) from the comparatively more successful Men in Black.  With creative makeup effects showcasing Jones’ gradual transformation into a human grotesque followed by a fully rendered stop motion animated monster Ray Harryhausen would be proud of thanks to The Empire Strikes Back animator Phil Tippett, Howard the Duck flexes it’s practical effects muscles beautifully with rich imagination and precise execution. 

Despite hang-ups fans of the comic had with the changes made to the character including the author himself who since reversed his predisposition against the film after seeing it firsthand, Howard the Duck is a criminally underrated visual effects gem of the 1980s and one of the last bastions of overblown studio filmmaking.  As aforementioned, this was one of the earliest Marvel cinematic adaptations and one wonders how much better it may have done if made and released today. 

This is my favorite duck lube! Let's get quackin'!

Given the stronghold comic book/superhero films have over the mainstream movie going scene no matter how outlandish some of them may be, Howard the Duck feels thirty years ahead of it’s time.  Remember when Guardians of the Galaxy went from being a big risk that turned out to be a major hit if not one of the finest superhero films ever made?  Howard the Duck most certainly would have done better at the box office in our current comic book film driven climate and what many dismiss at face value as a batshit failure, seen in hindsight, is a lot more imaginative and inventive than most are willing to give it credit for.  Not a masterpiece by any stretch but nowhere near the Godawful train wreck people have made it out to be either.


- Andrew Kotwicki