Today’s feature is “Howard the Duck,” one of the most infamous and perplexing failures in Hollywood history, and also the first cinematic adaptation from the Marvel universe.
Howard the Duck was directed and co-written by William Huyck, who famously wrote “American Graffiti” and “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.” He only had four directing credits, of which “Howard the Duck” was his largest production (and, notably, his last).
Huyck wrote “Howard the Duck” alongside his wife and frequent writing partner Gloria Katz, who also served as a producer on the movie. The story is very loosely based on the beloved Marvel comic series created by Steve Gerber, with drastic changes to the tone and characters.
The music on “Howard the Duck” was provided by John Barry, with the original songs written by Thomas Dolby. Barry is best known for working on a number of the James Bond movies, as well as assorted films like “Starcrash,” “The Cotton Club,” and “Midnight Cowboy.” Dolby is best known for the hit “She Blinded Me With Science!”, but also worked on a number of films such as “We’re Back!” and “FernGully.”
The cinematography on “Howard the Duck” was provided by Academy Award nominee Richard H. Kline, who worked on science fiction films such as “The Andromeda Strain,” “Soylent Green,” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and accrued over 55 cinematography credits over his career.
“Howard the Duck” is famously associated with George Lucas, who served as executive producer on the film. It is unclear exactly how much input he had on the creative decisions on the production, but most of the blame for the film has been leveled at him regardless.
The cast of “Howard the Duck” features Lea Thompson (“Back to the Future”), Jeffrey Jones (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), and Tim Robbins (“The Shawshank Redeption”), as well as Chip Zien as the voice of Howard.
Interestingly, “Howard the Duck” produced a lot of alternate casting rumors for most of the major roles. Reportedly, people such as Paula Abdul, Kim Basinger, Jodi Benson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lori Singer and Tori Amos were all considered for the role of Beverly before it ultimately went to Lea Thompson. Likewise, the voice work casting field for Howard included names such as Rob Paulsen, John Cusack, and Martin Short. Most hilariously of all in my opinion is the fact that Jay Leno was considered for the role of Phil, which went to Tim Robbins. I can only imagine how awful that could have been, given what “Collision Course” was like a few years later.
The story of “Howard the Duck” centers around a humanoid duck from a parallel dimension, who is pulled into our world by a science experiment gone wrong. The plot follows Howard as he tries to adapt to Earth, and looks for a way to get back to his home planet.
The source material for “Howard the Duck” has a famously tumultuous history. After being created by Steve Gerber, Disney went after Marvel comics about the character, alleging that Howard was too similar to Donald Duck. After a character redesign to smooth over the issue and a critically lauded run, further lengthy fights ensued between Gerber and Marvel over ownership of the character after he was unceremoniously fired, and the comic cancelled. This fight resulted in a lawsuit over the film’s production, as well as passive blows in the pages of Gerber’s later comics.
The character of Howard the Duck famously appeared in a cameo at the end of the hit “Guardians of the Galaxy,” establishing Howard as a member of the modern Marvel cinematic universe.
Reportedly, the duck suit used for Howard cost the production nearly $2 million alone, on an estimated total budget of $37 million. It was operated by a a number of different actors throughout the production, though it is primarily credited to Ed Gale, who received his first acting credit for the movie.
“Howard the Duck” was ultimately nominated for seven Golden Raspberries (Razzies), which are handed out to the perceived worst films of the year. It wound up winning four, including a tie with Prince’s “Under the Cherry Moon” for Worst Picture.
Amazingly, the failure of “Howard the Duck” ultimately played an important part in the origin of Pixar. After the construction of Skywalker Ranch, Lucas was relying on “Howard the Duck” to be a significant hit to cover the cost of the project. After the movie failed to profit significantly, Lucas wound up near bankruptcy, and sold Industrial Light and Magic’s animation studio to Steve Jobs, which laid the core foundation for Pixar.
It has been reported that famed directorJohn Landis nearly took the job of helming “Howard the Duck,” but ultimately turned it down due to the inclusion of a car chase with police, citing the similarities to his earlier film “The Blues Brothers.” He wound up directing the successful comedy “Three Amigos!” in 1986 instead.
“Howard the Duck” features a number of Wilhelm screams, which is a stock sound effect that George Lucas is particularly fond of using in his movies. If you are not familiar with it by name, you have almost certainly heard it countless times before in movies without realizing it.
“Howard the Duck” managed to gross over $37 million in total worldwide in its theatrical run, but on a budget of $37 million, only barely making back the money put into it (and dramatically failing to meet expectations). Interestingly, most of the theatrical money came from overseas markets, and was considered a massive failure domestically. Interestingly, it also went by the alternate title of “Howard: A New Breed of Hero” for the Australian and UK releases, which significantly toned down the duck imagery for the promotional materials.
Reception for “Howard the Duck” was understandably negative, though it has gained some loyal fans over the years. It currently holds an IMDb rating of 4.5, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 14% (critic) and 39% (audience).
Of all of the negative reviews of “Howard the Duck” that I have seen, none have failed to mention that absurd overuse of puns throughout the film. Puns are of course a staple in action movies, but never so frequently or egregiously as they are used here. I assume their use was intentional and meant to be a running gag, but it just doesn’t work in the way that it was intended.
The effects work has been mocked to some degree in reviews that I have seen of the film, but I actually thought it all looked ok for the time, even the duck suit. The monsters certainly haven’t aged well, but the makeup work holds up impressively well in my opinion.
The reactions from the characters in the film to outlandish situations are never understandable or believable, which is something that I think was supposed to be funny. For instance, the public reactions to Howard, an anthropomorphic duck, are all over the board. Some assume he is a child in a suit, others think he is a Pet, while one bright fellow assumes he is a ventriloquist’s dummy. Likewise, Jeffrey Jones’s dramatic possession isn’t treated by observers in any sort of understandable fashion. One character thinks he is an evangelical preacher, while others seem to assume he is just suffering from a lack of coffee. At the very least, I expected someone to appear concerned before it got to the point that he was firing lightning out of his eyes and glowing.
For all of the issues with “Howard the Duck,” there are a few moments of genuine humor, though few and far between. I particularly enjoyed the line “I hate violence! You have to go in there and beat them up!”, which reminded me of the War Room from “Dr. Strangelove,” which is the only way one should ever mention “Howard the Duck” and Stanley Kubrick in the same breath.
Among the many infamous aspects of “Howard the Duck,” the musical ending might be the most memorable. It has become immortalized for not only the theme song, but also for Howard’s inexplicable guitar work. Interestingly, the singing for the sequence is actually done by Lea Thompson and the backup actors. It was apparently deemed good enough to not justify dubbing over.
One of the biggest issues with “Howard the Duck” is the clear confusion with who the audience for the film was supposed to be. The movie retains some of the profanity and adult humor from the source material, but plays like a kids movie and was ultimately (somehow) rated PG. Richard Corless of TIME magazine wrote in his review: “The movie is too scuzzy to beguile children, too infantile to appeal to adults,” which perfectly captures the core problem with the film. Similarly, Gene Siskel wrote in his review simply “who was this stupid film made for?” The reception and tone of “Howard the Duck” reminded me quite a bit of “Hudson Hawk,” another high profile critical failure from Hollywood that I covered recently. Both movies share a sense of humor, which hybridizes a cartoonish style with adult content, which failed to resonate with audiences in both instances.
Fans of the original comic series were of course disappointed with the way Howard was ultimately written in the film, feeling that he was portrayed much softer and more tame than he should have been. On the flip side, many found that the toned-down perversity that remained in the script were too risque for general audiences, meaning that it failed to satisfy either population. It makes the movie a sort of cautionary tale of why you should have an audience in mind for a film, rather than trying to please everyone: more often than not, the result is disappointment. The only reason it makes sense to me, and what the logic behind the decision probably was, is tied directly to the budget. Clearly, there were hopes that “Howard” would prove to be a cash cow, and a PG rating means that more people would be able to buy tickets, and more theaters would be interested in booking it. Of course, that plan didn’t quite pan out as hoped.
“Howard the Duck” doesn’t get a strong recommendation from me, primarily because of how dull the movie gets at points. The only reason I kind of have to recommend it is because of how engrained it is in popular culture as a Hollywood failure, but that certainly doesn’t count for nothing. “Howard the Duck” is probably one of the most recognizable Hollywood failures of all time, and that makes it essential watching for bad movie fans without any doubt. For people not interested in the background of the film and its context, however, there are far more entertaining movies to dig up out there.