Howard The Duck: An Appreciation

Howard the Duck (film)

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It was the 1980s. Fresh from their success with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, husband-and-wife writing team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, fellow film school graduates and friends of George Lucas, began to toy with the idea of bringing Steve Gerber‘s absurdist comic book character Howard The Duck to the big screen. Nobody knew what sort of movie it would be. Huyck (who would serve as the film’s director) and Katz themselves didn’t know. As it turns out, they were actually wanting to create an animated film. But time constraints and Universal‘s need for a summer flick forced them to go the live-action route. They poured blood, sweat and tears into an enormously challenging and highly stressful project that was constantly mired by technical problems and studio interference. Huyck and Katz were frustated by disagreements with Lucas over the film’s content and level of maturity. Every effort was made to stay as true to Gerber’s vision as possible, but the Hollywood Machine had its effects once again. The result was a film that is widely remembered as one of the biggest box office bombs of all time. It was a frequent punchline, a humbling source of embarrassment and a late-night rerun that was rather difficult to categorize. And it very nearly killed the careers of Huyck and Katz altogether. The thing is, Howard The Duck is actually a very good movie. Not just a well-made movie with groundbreaking special effects, but an honest-to-gosh good movie. The problem, in fact, isn’t with the movie at all. It’s with the audience.

Mistake #1: “It’s a movie about a duck, so it must be a kid’s movie!” Uh, no. Anyone who has ever read an issue of Howard The Duck could tell you that Howard has never been aimed at younger audiences. People used to think that if a film was animated it was intended for kids, and movies like Heavy Metal, Fritz the Cat and Rock and Rule had something to say about that. This is called Audiences Not Doing Their Homework, and it has killed many a good movie at the box office. It’s not much of a secret that George Lucas tried to have the film toned down for younger audiences, with Huyck and Katz resisting him every step of the way, and the question of whether or not the film would have been better-received (or even simply better) is one that really can’t be answered. Katz herself even states the film is for anyone who finds it entertaining. This is a roundabout way of saying “kids can watch it, but it’s really not a kid’s movie.”

Mistake #2: “I just can’t take this movie seriously. How can you tell a serious story about a talking duck?” It’s not supposed to be serious. Huyck and Katz both openly describe the movie as “absurd.” They attempted to capture the dry, off-the-wall humor of Gerber’s comics in their film adaptation. Howard The Duck is not and never has been a serious movie, and to take it seriously at all is the biggest mistake you can make. Howard The Duck is a comedy. It always has been. The original comics and even the more recent Gerber-penned mini-series in the early 2000s had enormously silly stories and dry dialogue and were stuffed with pop culture parodies and sly, satirical social commentary — just like the movie. The movie deliberately defies logic and laughs in the face of human drama. It gleefully makes fun of everything from On the Waterfront to the classic Western (in the film’s finale, not only does the cinematography mimic that of Westerns when Howard and The Dark Overlord face off, but the score even takes on the characteristics of a typical Western musical track. Details, people!), either in its dialogue or in its visuals. It does not take itself seriously for a single moment. Thus, neither should you.

Mistake #3: “This movie had really lousy special effects!” Wait, what? This movie’s effects were ahead of their time! Sure, the Howard the Duck suit looks just like a Howard the Duck suit, but the animatronics used were advanced for the period, and the digital cleanup (used to remove wires and cables from shots) and the stop-motion photography were state-of-the-art. In fact, some of the effects shots don’t even look like effect shots at all (which is the whole idea for those of you who don’t realize this), and some shots that people thought were of Howard against a blue screen were, in fact, shots of a stop-motion animated prop. Special effects aren’t all flashy explosions and making people fly. And again, if some of the effects in this movie appear a little cartoony, they’re supposed to be. This is based on a comic book, after all!

Howard The Duck was ahead of its time. Maybe too far ahead. Audiences didn’t know what to make of it. Critics tore it apart. Some kids were terrified of it. Careers were damaged, egos were bruised and reputations tarnished. Not all suffered misfortune, however; when diminutive performer Ed Gale revealed himself to be the man in the duck suit, director Mel Brooks immediately cast him in Spaceballs (showing once again what an awesome guy Brooks is).

And the movie just doesn’t deserve its “awful movie” label. No, it’s not exactly like the comic book, and certainly Gerber had good reason to distance himself from it at the time. But how many comic book movies so perfectly adhere to their source material? They all have differences; all had changes made for one reason or another. Even movies that directly use the comics for their storyboards and designs change things (Watchmen is a perfect example; dare I mention a certain squid ? Or Tales of the Black Freighter ? Or the outfit worn by the world’s smartest man?). Howard The Duck cannot, in fairness, be condemned for things that it is not at fault for. It is not the comic book that inspired it. It is a movie. A good movie.

This movie has its fans. There are more of us than you might think. Gale himself receives more fan mail for Howard The Duck than any other movie he’s ever worked on. And he’s been in a lot of movies. For a time, the movie was available on VHS, and the transfer’s quality was fine. But when the age of DVD arrived, fans kept waiting and waiting for a DVD release, and the wait grew longer all the time. At long last, the wait is over, as we now have a Special Edition DVD, and for a reasonably low price as well!

I will tell you now that there is no audio commentary track, nor is there the beloved music video. It does, however, include several detailed featurettes which present new interviews with Huyck, Katz, Gale, actress Lea Thompson and actor Jeffrey Jones, as well as older interviews with Huyck and Katz, musician Thomas Dolby (who not only composed the film’s songs, but also staged the sequences featuring the band Cherry Bomb) and even a very brief interview with Howard himself, in which our hero talks about what it was like to do his own stunts. We also get the teaser trailers and several language options (with and without subtitles). The featurettes are very informative and include quite a lot of facts that I was not aware of (and I know quite a lot about this movie), and really give the viewer a good idea of what kind of hell everyone involved had to go through just to get the movie made. And did you know John Cusack was considered for the voice of Howard? Neither did I! One of the featurettes focuses on the movie’s special effects, and it’s fascinating to learn how so many of the movie’s ambitious sequences were pulled off. We meet the stunt pilot of the ultralight, the man who animated The Dark Overlord (“We call him Allan.”) and we even discover that one of Howard’s stunt doubles was actually a woman. There’s more, of course. Much more. But why spoil it?

The movie itself has been given a grand cleanup. The picture and sound are sharp and crystal-clear. It looks and sounds better than ever. I hadn’t seen the movie in widescreen format since I saw it in the theater, and with it being restored and improved so much it felt like I was seeing it for the very first time all over again. Little aural and visual details that couldn’t be picked up on broadcast TV or VHS can be caught clearly here, and the visual effects hold up enormously well. No, they weren’t given the Star Wars treatment. The film hasn’t been redone in any way. It’s just been given back the color and shine that VHS wear and tear takes away.

Since it now has such a fresh, clean presentation, it’s time to go back in and watch it with a fresh, clean mind. It’s not a kid’s movie. It’s not supposed to be taken seriously. It’s not a run-of-the-mill comic book flick. Howard The Duck is a fun, clever and imaginative comedy, and just like dramas and tragedies that have moments of comic relief, this movie has little bits of dramatic relief that are meant to serve as a break from the comedy, not to somehow inspire us to treat it as sober storytelling. So sit down and watch the movie with right frame of mind; you might discover that what you thought was a bad movie is actually a pretty darn good one. Remember to check your staidness at the door. Your sense of humor is all you need.

 

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