originally published December 1, 2012
In 1984, confident that he had completed the greatest movie trilogy of all time, George Lucas decided to step down as president of Lucasfilm and take a stab at being a full-time producer. To provide a bit of historical context, at this time everybody in the free world loved George Lucas. In addition to the Star Wars films (untouched – Han still shot first and the Ewoks didn’t blink), the first two Indiana Jones films, and American Graffiti (also, to a lesser extent, the thoughtfully dystopian THX-1138), Lucas had also done for movie effects what the Beatles had done for rock music. He had assembled a mystically innovative team and was developing the go-to company for film wow-dom.
Free from his Lucasfilm duties, George had the entire world to choose from when it came to developing his next hit. He was still deep in the Star Wars universe, executively producing the Ewoks and Droids TV cartoons in 1985. And he still wanted to appeal to that youthful demographic that mirrored the wide-eyed kid who pulled the over-size levers and pushed the twinkling buttons inside his imagination.
George looked to the world of comic books. This is what he found:
Yes, Howard the Duck. Introduced as the star of a horror parody in Adventure Into Fear #19 in late 1973, Howard was an irritable, crotchety cigar-smoking miscreant. He had no heroic ambitions; he just wanted to be left alone in peace. Creator Steve Gerber believed the character and his world to be existentialist. Its main joke is, apparently, that there is no joke.
The comic became an underground hit. By 1977 it had been ported into a daily newspaper comic strip, and was featured on the side of a painted glass at 7-11. Disney threatened a lawsuit because Howard, who didn’t wear pants in his first appearances, was dangerously close to being a foul-mouthed version of Donald Duck.
I’ve never read the comic series. But from what I can tell, it sounds like the nearest equivalent I’ve seen is the brilliant but short-lived TV series Duckman:
Instead, Lucas and his fellow conspirators opted to bring us this in 1986:
Lucas teamed up with his school chums, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck; the three of them had done fine work together on American Graffiti and Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom so it looked like a good fit. Right away they decided to abandon the idea of Howard being a grouchy duck, and sought to make him a ‘nice guy’.
A nice guy. Lucas hand-selected an edgy, absurdist comic with an undertone of cynicism and grit and all he took from it was that it featured a talking alien duck. This would be like putting together a film adaptation of All In The Family but making Archie Bunker a jovial older man who just happened to have a favorite chair.
The plan had been to produce Howard The Duck as an animated feature. Huyck and Katz were dead-set on this in order to capture the feel of the comic. But Universal, who had optioned the comic for film, needed a summer blockbuster release. Lucas stepped up and announced Howard would be live action, peppered with brilliant special effects from his company, Industrial Light & Magic.
Lucas now has a reputation among some movie-goers as a guy who doesn’t always make the greatest decisions when it comes to balancing effects and narrative. Back in 1986, his only real slip-up had been the Star Wars Holiday Special, so Universal gave him the benefit of the doubt with this one.
Having not seen this movie since its initial theatrical run more than a quarter-century ago, re-reading the plot summary on Wikipedia was a markedly surreal experience. It was like watching old family movies and discovering that the wacky uncle that you vaguely remember was actually a dessert spoon. The four-paragraph description of the plot is worth a read for the sheer bat-shittedness of the story, but I’ll try to fairly sum it up:
Howard lives on a planet where ducks have evolved to human-like status, a place called Duckworld (because it has to have ‘duck’ in the name – just as we call this planet ‘Humanworld’). He suddenly finds himself on Earth, meeting punk rocker Lea Thompson and lab geek Tim Robbins. An alien creature inhabits the body of the principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, who turns into a Dark Overlord over a Cajun sushi meal. Howard is almost eaten by the local diners, then the Overlord kidnaps Lea Thompson, leading to a scene in which Tim Robbins and the Duck search for Lea by flying a plane around, looking for clues. They find her, but the means for Howard to return home are destroyed. He becomes Lea’s band’s manager because that’s not stupid.
They tried to paint a little touch of the edgy into the frames of the film, offering up the above near-sex scene between Howard and Lea Thompson’s character Beverly, which includes the riotous image of his cranial feathers standing on end, as though Howard was achieving some kind of head-boner.
The movie was sprinkled with little duck-puns like this. Howard employs the martial art of Quack Fu (which was in the comic), and is seen on Duckworld reading a copy of Playduck Magazine. Get it? It’s like Playboy, except it’s the entire species, which suggests that the inhabitants of Duckworld are purely bisexual, having no gender preference within the covers of their nudie mags.
Six different actors appeared within the various duck suits crafted for the production. When Howard’s mouth opened, the actors’ necks were visible inside. Lucas and ILM had to come up with innovative techniques, but unlike his previous films in which the innovation was spurned by a desire to create something spectacular, this time they were just trying to cover up blemishes.
The movie opened and was quickly labeled one of the worst films of all time. Even as an 11-year-old with undeveloped taste and a shockingly low threshold of entertainment, I found it to be stupid and dull.
It finished in the black, grossing just over $37 million, which barely surpassed the $36 million budget. Ed Gale, who did the voice-work for Howard, reportedly receives more fan mail for this film than for his work as the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play movies. This leads me to ask, who the hell is sending these fan letters?
Tim Robbins’ mid-80s break-out to fame wasn’t tainted by this film, and even Lea Thompson kept getting work. So this wasn’t a career-killer.
Howard The Duck was the first adaptation of a Marvel comic to the big screen since the mid-40s Captain America serials. With all Marvel’s recent success, this is a strange statistic. As for George Lucas, he asserted that, despite the negative reviews, this film would be considered a masterpiece in 20 years time.
26 and counting, George.