By Christopher Campbell
If you buy the kids only one new video release this week, make it Pinocchio. Obviously. But if you have enough spending money to buy two, pick up Howard the Duck as well. Finally on DVD in America (with a Special Edition no less), the infamous flop is anything but a great film. Yet it is hardly one of the worst films of the 1980s, despite its reputation.
For the past 23 years, I’ve stood by my childhood love for Howard the Duck, constantly acknowledging that I even owned Ellis Weiner’s novelization of the film. Technically, the best reason to defend the movie’s existence is that it directly led to the creation of Pixar. But this reason doesn’t influence anyone to watch the thing. So, in order to defend the movie’s onscreen worth, I’ve come up with ten points for why you should pick up the new Howard the Duck disc and not feel at all guilty about doing so.
1. It’s No Longer the Worst Lucasfilm Production
Take your pick — there’s The Phantom Menace or there’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, either of which could certainly take the prize for being the worst movie to come from George Lucas in his 40 years producing films. Well, maybe not worse than More American Graffiti. But both films were far bigger creative and franchise disappointments than Howard the Duck (financial success is another story, of course), and so they have a relative sort of wretchedness that places them in the bottom of Lucas’ Sarlacc pit of a career. Even if you’re one of those defend-to-the-end Star Wars fanboys who will argue the pros of Menace, at least then consider Willow to be worse than Howard the Duck. The blatant Lord of the Rings rip-off has its historical relevance, but looking back on it now, it’s even more dated than Howard. And regardless of how groundbreaking it was, Willow’s visual effects don’t hold up quite as well as Howard’s old-fashioned, and oft-celebrated craftsmanship. But that’s another point…
2. The Special Effects Are Technically Brilliant
Those of us who prefer go-motion and other non-CGI effects work will always pay respect to ILM’s achievements on Howard the Duck, particularly their efforts with the Dark Overlord creature in the movie’s final act. People unfortunately tend to focus on the $2 million duck suit (see point #3), but even then Howard didn’t deserve its Razzie for Worst Visual Effects. To compare it to digital creatures, the monster would fit in just fine in either of the Men in Black movies. And for its own time, it was a magnificent creation. So it existed alongside a silly costumed creature in an overpriced B-movie, it still deserved an Oscar nomination for F/X in 1987, a year the Academy recognized Little Shop of Horrors and Poltergeist II: The Other Side (and incomparable winner Aliens).
3. The Duck Suit is Still Better Than Most CGI
Those of us who grew up with Muppets, Chewbacca and other non-computer-generated fantasy creatures had no problem with Howard the Duck’s titular fowl being represented as a dwarf in a duck suit. The issue with the effect, though, is that allegedly Lucas had wanted Howard to be a CG creation, but the technology just wasn’t there yet. So, costumes and robotics, all of which reportedly cost $2 million, were viewed as a relative disappointment. But think of how few great CG characters there have been in the past 20 years, and then seriously attempt to argue that Howard would have been any better if made in the years of CGI supremacy. Now, also remember that 1986 was a year that gave us fine puppetry, costumed dwarfs and robotics like that found in Labyrinth (also a Lucasfilm production), Little Shop of Horrors, Legend, Short Circuit, Flight of the Navigator, Troll (sure, why not?) and, yes, Howard the Duck. So really, the only thing disappointing about the duck suit is that it doesn’t really look like the comic book character upon which it’s based. Of course, it’s not likely that a CG version of Howard would have been any more faithful.
4. Parallels, Puns and Playful Philosophy
Some fans of the original Howard the Duck comics could argue that the duck suit is hardly the worst offense of unfaithfulness. Other complaints might be the alteration of Beverly’s career or the occasional sacrifice of the comic’s tone in order to pander to younger audiences. But real sticklers may take issue with Howard’s origin, the inclusion of Duckworld (which did come from the comics but wasn’t Howard creator Steve Gerber’s idea of what the character’s home world was like) and the punny parallels that came with it. Yet for those of us who love corny jokes and puns, the idea of an alternate world where everything’s the same, just with descendants of ducks rather than apes, is a lot of fun. It’s the same appreciation that allowed me to enjoy the ska scene and the similarly parallel worlds of The Flintstones and Dinosaurs and the parodies in MAD Magazine. In the first few minutes, we get treated to the following cheesy but delicious sight and audio gags: a Rolling Egg magazine, a Playduck magazine, movie posters for “Splahsdance,” “Breeders of the Lost Stork” and My Little Chickadee (starring W.C. Fowls and Mae Nest), and commercials for feather fungus treatment and the Crazy Eddie spoof “Crazy Webby.” This, plus the opening credit narration and theory of Duckworld evolution were enjoyable to a kid in the midst of learning about Darwin and pondering the existence of alternate worlds.
5. Jeffrey Jones as Dr. Jenning/Dark Overlord
Between Howard the Duck and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Jeffrey Jones was one of the biggest and best villains of the summer of ‘86. For kids, anyway. But even adults recognized the quality of Jones’ performance in Howard, as Dr. Jenning, the scientist who becomes possessed by the Dark Overlord. To cult audiences, he may have seemed like just another Dr. Lizardo/Lord Worfin (of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension), but while John Lithgow was fine and nutty, Jones is much creepier and much, much more evil, even when he finds time to be deadpan hilarious during the greatest scene in the film, in the “cajun sushi” diner.
6. The Diner Scene
Although it’s mostly thanks to Jones that this scene is so memorable, it’s not just his performance alone that makes it so terrific. Every time I watch the movie, I look forward to the entire episode, from Jones/Jenning/Dark Overlord’s exposition to the waitress’ interactions with the “family” to Howard’s pie and quack-fu fight with a bunch of rednecks. And I will always recommend the movie for this scene alone. It includes a lot of disturbing elements, such as Beverly’s claim that she’s Howard’s girlfriend and the angry mob’s desire to kill and cook a talking duck man, that might have worked better had Howard been represented as an animated character rather than a guy in a suit (bestiality and homicide is just fine in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Looney Tunes cartoons), but it’s also one of the weirdest and funniest scenes from any comic book adaptation ever.
7. Lea Thompson as Beverly Switzler
I would go so far as to argue that Lea Thompson’s crimped-haired Beverly is the hottest female comic book character come to (cinematic) life, but that is certainly subjective. Plenty of people probably prefer Kirsten Dunst, Halle Berry, Jennifer Garner, Michelle Pfeiffer, Pamela Anderson or even Margot Kidder. But Thompson is definitely in there as one of the greatest physical incarnations of a comic book femme d’ fantasy, and the scene where she goes to bed with Howard wearing barely a bit of lingerie (as creepy as the scene is infamous for being) is up there with Dunst’s wet tshirt/upside-down kiss in Spider-Man and any of Pfeiffer’s bondage-bound Catwoman scenes in Batman Returns as one of the hottest moments from any comic book adaptation ever.
8. Cherry Bomb and the Howard the Duck soundtrack
Beverly may not have been a rocker in the comics, but this was the 1980s, and you had to have a great synthpop soundtrack, so the character was given a change in career as the leader of a Runaways-inspired band called Cherry Bomb. And for having beaten out more musical contenders for the role, including The Go-Go’s Belinda Carlisle and Tori Amos (then of Y Can’t Tori Read), Lea Thompson does quite well singing such catchy tunes as “Howard the Duck” and “Hunger City.” Cherry Bomb’s music also had some help from Thomas Dolby, George Clinton, Joe Walsh and Stevie Wonder. As for the rest of the soundtrack, Oscar-winning composer John Barry (Out of Africa; the James Bond films) contributes a very fine score.
9. It’s For Kids
Because everyone always defends the Star Wars prequels as being for kids, as if that’s really an excuse for faulty filmmaking, I’m going to do the same here. But to do that, I guess I have to also defend the idea that it is indeed a movie for kids. Watching the thing, it’s hard to tell, because there is a lot of content and humor that only adults can or should appreciate, and certainly one of the biggest criticisms with the movie is it’s fluctuations between wanting to be a biting, sarcastic comic book adaptation for older audiences and fans of the source and needing to be a silly movie for kids. But for all the duck nudity, sexuality and other material better suited to mature audiences, there’s not really anything harmful to a kid, and there’s millions of us ‘80s children who grew up okay to prove it. So, while you adults may not be able to enjoy Howard the Duck anymore, even as a nostalgic artifact, your kids will probably like it as much as you used to.
10. It’s Not Redundant
Unlike some comic book adaptations, Howard the Duck isn’t a straight lift from the pages of the source material, and it’s better off for it. Some fans of the comic may be annoyed with Howard’s appearance or Beverly’s occupation or the absence of any of Howard’s usual foes, but those of us who saw the movie first can appreciate the differences, because these allow for a better introduction to and curiosity about the comic. In a way, it’s to the original Marvel series as The Incredibles is to the graphic novel of Watchmen (though it’s certainly not anywhere near as smart nor well-crafted as The Incredibles).
Now, if you still aren’t sure whether or not you should get the DVD, watch some (or all) of the movie on Hulu.