Howard the Duck (1986) – reviewed by George

This is a movie with one strange history of bad reviews and trash talk. It’s not really bad – there are many components that are great. Let’s deal with those first.
The stars are heroine Lea Thompson, villain Jeffrey Jones, co-hero Tim Robbins, co-hero Ed Gale, and co-hero Chip Zien (voice). Lea plays part of a band called Cherry Bomb; the other three members are Liz Sagal, Dominique Davalos, and Holly Robinson (Peete). The four women do not actually play their own instruments, but they do their own choreography, and more important, they do their own singing. Their numbers were written by Thomas Dolby and Allee Willis and staged by Dolby, and the choreography is by Sarah Elgart. On the song “Howard the Duck”, Dolby and Willis were aided by cowriter George Clinton. The songs are excellent and the performances by Cherry Bomb are super. Jeffrey is a great actor (remember Ferris Bueller’s principal?), and here he gets to transform from Dr. Jenning, a well-intentioned scientist, to an evil Dark Overlord of the Universe. Jones’s makeup must have been hard to keep up with, since like every movie this was shot out of order, and  the very talented make-up crew ( headed by Gracie Atherton and hairdresser Joy Zapata) manages it handily, but Jones deserves recognition because his voice gradually changes as he becomes more and more the Dark Lord and less and less Dr. Jenning, and he is always right on target. Tim is Phil, a young scientist on Jenning’s team (the sign outside his office says “Paleontology – Ichthyology”), and he is the one who basically knows what went wrong with the experiment, but not exactly what to do about it. Ed Gale plays Howard T. Duck from planet Duckworld, accidentally brought to Earth by Jenning’s experiment gone wrong (which also brought us the Dark Lord). So Howard is played by a man in a duck suit, rather than CGI, which basically did not exist back then in the form we know today. When he spoke his lines he could not be heard because of the duck helmet, so Broadway’s Chip Zien was hired to be the voice of the duck. There was also a stuntwoman duck, and others – 8 Howards in all: the other 6 are Tim Rose, Steve Sleap, Peter Baird, Mary Wells, Lisa Sturz, and Jordan Prentice.
The marvelous special effects were done by the on-set effects crew as much as possible (like furniture sliding at the Dark Lord’s command to block a door, and squibs for small explosions, etc.), but visual effects are credited to Industrial Light and Magic, and there are plenty. As an effects movie (both kinds) “Howard” really shines.
The set design is really good too. On Duckworld Howard’s apartment is decorated with posters: some of lovely duck ladies, one for “Breeders of the Lost Stork” with a portrait of Indiana Duck, duck family photos, a bowling trophy topped by a duck about to roll a ball, and a magazine, Rolling Egg with a cover shot of Wally Waddle. Clever. The design team includes Production Designer Peter Jamison, Art Directors Blake Russell and Mark Billerman, Set Designers Jim Pohl and Pamela Marcotte, and Set Decorator Philip Abramson,
There is also a wonderful score by John Barry, of Bond fame, and the work of the ILM Creature Shop is fantastic.
“So what is wrong, George?”, you ask. Well, the movie is obviously structured to be funny. And it isn’t, in many instances. A joke is basically a set-up and then a payoff. For instance, a man walks into a bar and announces that he is in town for the Shurkey Toot. After several spoonerisms from the customer, the payoff: the bartender tells another customer, “Gee, that guy just shickles the tit out of me.” Even if you don’t think that’s funny, it certainly illustrates the joke structure we’re talking about. And it’s hilarious compared to most of the jokes in “Howard”. An example: The Dark Lord is mistaken for a visiting Senator and is told by a tour guide, “The only meltdowns around here are the cheese sandwiches in the toaster oven. Ha, ha!” The DL shrieks at him like an angry bird. The payoff? “Wow, these Washington guys take a real beating on these junkets.” Do YOU think that’s funny?
One piece of dialogue like that is too many, but there are lots. So what could have been a great movie is undermined by unfunny material. Couldn’t someone have said, “Let’s have some guy who writes a successful sitcom take a pass at the script.”?
Oh, there were some times when I laughed. But it was sort of out of desperation because I was so hungry for a laugh.. At 24 minutes in, Phil shows a chart of man’s evolution from an ape-like ancestor and then imagines it into a chart of Howard’s evolution from a regular earth-like game-duck. At 35 minutes I laughed at a line, “Different lifestyles are one thing, different life forms is another.” At 54 minutes a cop yells, “He’s armed and dangerous!”, and Howard says, “Moi?” And later a woman screeches, “There’s gonna be more violence! I HATE violence! Ya gotta go in there and beat ’em up!” So, some of the comedy works, even if on a somewhat weak level.
Conclusion – this movie is still enjoyable and still worth watching for all the good stuff, and as I said, there’s a lot. Just know that those bad jokes are coming.
And yeah, I may have given a lot of off-screen people mention. But they deserve to be singled out for the things that are so good about this movie, a film that has been harangued, denigrated, and generally slammed, mostly (but not completely) unjustly.
Note on the production team: The film starts with the Universal logo and then you read: George Lucas Presents, A Willard Huyck Film, A Gloria Katz Production.
George Lucas was the Executive Producer, the film is based on the Marvel Comics character “Howard the Duck” created by Steve Gerber, Gloria Katz was the Producer, Willard Huyck was the Director, and the script was by Huyck and Katz. It may not be fair to blame all the lame jokes on Huyck and Katz – after all they also cowrote “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, from a story by George Lucas, and cowrote “American Graffiti” with George – both solid films with some humor. And frequently suggestions are made on-set, like “Could I say this instead of what’s in the script?”
Note on the cast: Paul Guilfoyle has a small part as Lieutenant Walker, Virginia Capers has a nice bit as an employment counselor, and Richard Kiley reads the narration at the beginning. He is credited as The Voice of the Cosmos (nice touch).

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