Analysis Hollywood Hegemony

Duck Fails: Re-evaluating Howard the Duck at 35

Of all the bad habits we critics have, needing to prove you are smarter than the film you are watching has to be one of the worst. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself a few times. But if you feel the need to prove you are smarter than Howard the Duck, what does that say about the fragile state of your ego, let alone your little grey cells?

Released 35 years ago, Willard Huyck’s film was roundly panned by critics, who behaved as though the film had been sold to them as Citizen Kane. How could it be that a duck-out-of-water story about a man-sized waterfowl trying to survive in Cleveland, Ohio, failed to emulate the filmmaking guile of Hitchcock or Kubrick? Christ on a bike, pull the stick out of your arse and live a little!

Admittedly, the script by Gloria Katz and Huyck is a long way from being Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the plot is spread thin for the opening act, and the pacing after that sees the film explode into life at seemingly random intervals, but in those moments, the right audience will fall in love with this film.

Perhaps the attachment of George Lucas’ name to the production is one source of the critics’ bemusement. With that being said, this explanation does not stand up when you factor in critics having sung the praises of the rancid Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones – a joyless, protracted slog that is still certified 65% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

Perhaps news of the film’s troubled production, or the rumours Lucas had unwisely bet his house on its success filtered into their preconceptions of the film? Perhaps some saw a red flag because it couldn’t keep hold of big names? Robin Williams, originally cast as the voice of Howard, quit the film after just two weeks – though the star of Popeye and Toys was hardly discerning in the stinkers he did stick around for.

Whatever the reason, though, the critics smelled blood in the water; an easy target had presented itself, one which critics could use to show how smart they were. What on another day might have been a low-to-medium write-up subsequently transformed into a feeding frenzy of zero-stars. Not only did the critics pan the film in this sense, the humourless skewerings of Howard the Duck largely asserted there was no audience to be found for it – something that probably didn’t help its performance in cinemas.

Decades later, though, the film has found a growing cult following. For the longest time I was put off by this status – people will watch any old nonsense for a cheap laugh at the filmmaker’s expense. But when I finally got round to it in August – 35 years on from its ill-fated fledgling flight in theatres – I actually found quite a bit to legitimately enjoy.

If not taken as a family film – and I can’t see why you would review a film where ducks carry condoms or almost seduce human women as a family film – there is enough bawdy absurdity to keep you onboard for its slow opening act. And that’s before you get beyond the half-way mark. Suddenly the film comes to life – chiefly thanks to the efforts of Jeffrey Jones. Disgraced in real life he may be, but here he utterly carries the production when he is introduced as the film’s antagonist.

Jones initially arrives purely as an expositionary prop to help explain how Howard arrived from a strange alternate world where ducks, not “disgusting hairless apes,” have become the planet’s dominant species. When he determines that putting his space-exploration device into reverse will send the duck home, however, the film veers gloriously off the slightly tiresome track it was previously welded to. While some might say this is a film going off the rails, it’s truly a joy to watch an actor clearly having fun with a role he understood was absurd.

As he is possessed by a ‘Dark Overlord,’ who vows to subject life as we know it to agonising destruction, it becomes increasingly clear what this film is supposed to be. It’s a big, dumb sci-fi farce – and one which might have worked better a decade later, and starring people instead of ducks. Indeed, Men in Black thrives by deploying the same ‘alien wearing a human’ schtick that appeared in Howard the Duck first.

Until this point, the film’s leads have been frustrating to watch. Neither Howard nor his friend Beverly Switzler (the world’s least convincing punk, played by Lea Thompson of Back to the Future) are witty or streetwise in any sense – they bumble through the earliest stages of their relationship in infuriatingly clunky fashion, newborn calfs tumbling over their own hooves as they try to walk. When the Dark Overlord emerges, however, this overly protracted set-up almost works. The pair have been set up as a couple of gormless foils for Jones’ hissing intergalactic entity.

At multiple points, he tries fruitlessly to explain to Howard and Beverley that he intends to do them and the world great harm. After a hilarious demonstration of his growing powers (elevating condiment bottles at a local diner making for a delightfully underwhelming exhibition of his strength), speaking about his “grotesque” true form, and how he will consume the planet’s energy, our ‘heroes’ still regard him as a quirky grump at worst. The play between our idiot protagonists and their would-be destroyer had me in stitches – and I would venture there is no way that this is unintentional.

Sometimes you must enjoy life’s absurdity for what it is.

At the same time, for the so-bad-its-good brigade, there are unintentional laughs to be had too. Whenever the Dark Overlord is in the middle of some extremely disturbing acts – having a limb resembling The Thing project from Jones’ throat to drink electricity, or vapourising a policeman and a roadblock – John Barry’s score swells to emotional crescendos. While terror and chaos unfolds before our eyes, the mis-cued soundtrack cues us to have the kind of empathetic response to ET coming back to life.

Again, these scenes have some genuinely amusing moments, including Jones’ Overlord hissing a one-liner at a policeman asking for his license. But while this might have been enough for a light laugh on its own, combined with the editor apparently being asleep at the wheel, the film ascends to a comedic zenith. Even without that, though, combined with some unexpectedly compelling action scenes – including a breathless flight in a microlight plane, where a long-running set-up about duck hunting finally pays off – there is so much to legitimately enjoy.

As the credits rolled I found myself a little dumbstruck. I had heard about this trainwreck, this dumpster fire of a production, long before I had seen it. Life is too short for films like that I had always told myself. But the first words out of my mouth were, “I’ve seen films much worse than that, which got far better reviews.”

Seek out Howard the Duck for your next group film night. Is it perfect? No. Are parts of it laughably poor? Yes. But, there are also plenty of moments where the film comes to life – and it is funny and engaging in its own right. Sometimes a film can be dumb in a good way, and so lovers of B-movies, bad or not, shouldn’t be put off by what the reviews had to say on this occasion. There really is a spark of joy to be gleaned here – and what kind of pigeon would write that off to prove their own intelligence quota?

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