FRED Watch Quickie Film Review: Howard the Duck (1986)


I’m a Wayne Stellini and welcome to FRED Watch, where we review everything from the mainstream to the obscure. Today’s film is the notorious box office bomb and cult classic, Howard the Duck

Lucasfilm Ltd. / Universal Pictures

Howard, an inhabitant of Duckworld, is propelled from his loungeroom to Earth, where he rescues musician Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson) from a group of thugs and forms a close friendship with her. An attempt to help Howard return to his home plant, however, unleashes an evil force on Earth…

Movies based on Marvel Comics publications are all too common now and are generally held in high esteem by comic book geeks and film nerds alike. However, Marvel’s chief rival Detective Comics (DC) were leading the game in 1986, having dominated film and television adaptations for the previous two decades. Howard the Duck, Marvel’s first big screen feature, proves that even the most popular cinematic universes have the most humble of beginnings.

Howard the Duck (1979, Issue #1) as he appeared in the earlier comics. (Credit: Marvel Comics)

Originally intended as an animated venture, contractual obligations saw executive producer George Lucas pushing for a live action adaptation of Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik‘s anthropomorphic duck. The film, however, still feels like a cartoon; it is an offering of over-the-top, noisy nonsense that has numerous fun moments. The costumes and set pieces are a glorious product of the era, and even the score and theme song add to the vibe.

Unfortunately, Howard the Duck doesn’t know who its audience is. Its adult themes and dark tones aren’t appropriate for children who would get the most out of the stunt work and sight gags, and probably wouldn’t care too much about the paper-thin plot that focuses on Howard managing a rock band and saving the planet form an evil alien invasion.

Howard’s look was criticised at the time (his aesthetics in the comics resemble Donald Duck), but in the grand scheme of the unfolding shenanigans, this is really only a minor quip. Ed Gale is the man predominantly in the duck suit while Chip Zien’s voice was added in post production. The pair do a fine enough job and, in fact, Howard is perhaps the most subdued character in the film. Willard Huyck’s direction dictates that the usually reliable Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones, and newcommer (and future Oscar-winner) Tim Robbins chew the scenery with striking confidence. But what lets the film down is the writing. Huyck and Gloria Katz have scaffolded their screenplay around cliches and countless, unnecessary one-liners.

Viewed in the right spirit—and why would anyone take a story about poultry zapped out of his arm chair and to another planet too seriously?—Howard the Duck is fun. The problem is, the mayhem doesn’t know when to quit, resulting in a messy third act. This is the sort of beer and pizza film that is best enjoyed with a group of mates. Howard would approve. 2½ / 5


Starring: Chip Zien (voice), Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, Jeffrey Jones, David Paymer, Paul Guilfoyle, Liz Sagal, Dominique Davalos, Holly Robinson, Tommy Swerdlow, Richard Edson, Miles Chapin, Paul Comi, Richard McGonagle.

Director: Willard Huyck | Producer: Gloria Katz | Writer: Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz (based on Howard the Duck by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik) | Music: John Barry | Songs: Thomas Dolby | Cinematographer: Richard H. Kline | Editor: Michael Chandler, Sidney Wolinsky

Available: DVD

Let us know what you thought of this TV series in the comments!


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