When he popped up in the end of credits stinger on “Guardians Of The Galaxy” (I’m not posting a spoiler warning for that because any right-thinking person has already seen that movie at least twice by now, and if you haven’t, stop what you’re doing and go watch it right now) , I knew it was time. Time to introduce The Mertmas to another of my favourite childhood films. Time to #Rediscover… “Howard The Duck”!
So much has been written about how terrible this film was, how it pushed George Lucas perilously close to bankruptcy (inadvertently starting the genesis of what would become Pixar), how its failure led to boardroom fistfights at Universal and crippled the careers of everyone involved for years but here’s the thing: when I first saw it at the age of 12, I thought it was great!
Back then, I didn’t care about box office receipts, critical reception or production difficulties, I just enjoyed this funny, weird movie about a duck from outer space who crash lands on Earth and has an adventure with a cool looking monster in it. I had no awareness of the comic book source (still don’t, really) but the mix of nonsense, adventure and sci-fi ticked all my boxes and I’m pretty sure I saw it in the cinema more than once. It’s possible I’m personally responsible for most of its UK gross.
The story begins on Duckworld, when Howard is pulled from his apartment by a mysterious energy vortex which dumps him in a seedy neighbourhood of Cleveland, he quickly encounters the colourful and safely non-threatening gang culture which only seemed to exist in comedies in the 1980s. You know the kind, they’re leather and denim clad punks who’ll push you around and brandish flick-knives but the most they’ll do is shove you to the ground near a comfy pile of soft garbage bags. So much more civilised than the gangs nowadays. Having had enough, he rescues Beverly (Lea Thompson) from a would-be mugging and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Eventually, through Beverly’s friend Phil (Tim Robbins), they discover how Howard arrived on Earth and together with Dr Jennings (Jeffrey Jones) plot to send him back. But before they can, something else uses the experimental laser spectroscope to travel to Earth – a ‘Dark Overlord’ from the Nexus Of Sominus, bent on world domination.
Yeah, the effects are a bit ropey nowadays but they were decent for the time but the puppet/ suit Howard is actually pretty damn good and voiced by Chip Zien and [mostly] inhabited by Ed Gale (Chucky in the “Child’s Play” series) Howard himself feels real and present – far more than, say, CGI Jar Jar Binks would over thirteen years later. Lea Thompson, fresh from her appearance in “Back To The Future” is at her sexiest ever in this film as a rock singer Beverly while Tim Robbins is good value as the manic and clumsy Phil. It’s Jeffrey Jones, however, who comes close to stealing the picture from Howard himself. He’s immensely entertaining as Dr Walter Jennings, especially when he becomes possessed by the Dark Overlord.
Of course, the film isn’t without its problems and the biggest is the whole tone of the film. While the second half is a more straightforward kids sci-fi comedy adventure, the first half is decidedly more adult in its approach. We’re treated to puns aplenty in Howard’s apartment: in-jokes and references to everything from jock-itch to porno mags with more than one glimpse of the naked female duck form displaying impressively mammalian features. There are numerous references to drink, drugs and sex including a played-for-laughs-but-still-a-bit-weird-and-creepy seduction scene between Beverly and Howard (from the producer who brought us a sister kissing her brother to make another man jealous) and Howard being forced to get a job at a sleazy brothel but all of this stuff – all the stuff that weirds me out a bit as an adult – just went over my head at the age of twelve, or if I did get the references, they didn’t bother me.
The same was true for The Mertmas watching this for the first time with me. He loved Howard and enjoyed his adventures, his eight year old mind simply tuning out the bits where Howard says something that seems a bit odd or doesn’t make sense, and focussing on the parts where a duck from outer space has a series of whacky adventures and ends up using a laser gun to fight a really cool looking interdimensional alien.
I concede that my personal fondness for this film polishes out a lot of its rough edges, and perhaps it’s more of a guilty pleasure [Hmm…that gives me an idea!] than a misunderstood and underrated great movie but I enjoyed it then and I still enjoy it now. For me “Howard The Duck” is easily just as good as “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” which has a similarly screwball mixture of surreal sci-fi, comedy and rock’n’roll and yet seems to be universally beloved. The Mertmas has already watched “Howard The Duck” again and I suspect it’ll find a place in his regular rotation.
Perhaps “Guardians Of The Galaxy” will lead to more people seeking this film out and giving it a post-modern, ironic chance. Maybe it’ll even achieve the masterpiece status that George Lucas believed it would eventually be seen as. After all, consider this: “Howard The Duck” was the first – the very first – Marvel feature film in history. And on that ‘Cherry Bomb’shell, I’ll leave you with the score:
#Rediscovered will return!