‘George Lucas has a lot to answer for.’ Nope, that’s not online fans’ opinion of the last three Star Wars films (although they too, indeed, have a lot to answer for) but rather the collective opinion of a long and, to many, happily forgotten live-action outing to Steve Gerber’s cigar chomping wisecracking creation Howard the Duck.
Originally a much ruder, cruder and, well, funnier version of Donald Duck – on which grounds Gerber supposedly got sued by Disney – Howard the Duck was the darling of the comic underground in the early 1970s to the early 80s.
Howard also had the occasional few appearances in the 90s in Generation X and even more recently in Marvel’s Civil War as a character that bridged the gap between the Marvel mainstream and more ‘indy’ comic books, a sort of happy medium that dealt with superheroes and villains, but also wry social commentary and parody at the same time.
Tackling such evil bad-guys as Dr Bong, a villain with a huge bell for a head (take that as you will) and erm… Winky Man and Man-Thing, Howard flitted around the edges of Marvel books making guest star appearances to lighten the mood. And he starred in his own book, which was basically a way for Gerber and fellow writers to take sweeps at politics, television, films and comics in general.
Unlike other superheroes, Howard had no special powers and while adapt at Quak-Fu, possessed the size, strength and agility of a child-sized duck. Still, that didn’t stop him from bagging a comic-based fantasy girl, Beverly Switzler, whose on-off relationship defied, I am sure, many laws and probably many practical biological issues as well.
As Howard was really a comic mouthpiece for his creators and writers, the concept of taking a wise-creaking streetwise character like this and producing a ‘family’ film was a surprising move. Something akin to taking Fritz the Cat and putting him in a kids programme, or converting Howard Stern or Jerry Sadowitz or Ozzy Osbourne into a family friendly prime time show (actually that last one has been done). Or Disney-izing Chubby Brown or Marylyn Manson.
But back in 1986, this is exactly what was done by George Lucas, who for all intents and purposes de-fanged (or should that be de-billed?) Howard’s satirical tone from the comics to deliver a film that is an oddity, a grotesque freakish movie hated by the masses, and yet, on some bizarre level, has a place in geeks’ hearts.
Much like those weird cats you get with no hair, or hairy babies (thanks to the exploits of Pat Mustard), or people who like wearing those fluffy boots that look like they are made from skinned Muppets, the movie version of Howard The Duck has people who love it. And while I must admit I am not as passionate as some members of the collective geek consciousness to the movie, there is a special place in my heart for this film.
This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, I remember watching it again and again when I had the mumps when I was about ten or eleven and really enjoying what is essentially a kids’ film. I also enjoyed the stop motion creatures at the end, but most importantly, and with hindsight, the main reason to watch the movie, there’s Lea Thompson whose crimped hair, laced gloves and full embodiment of mid-80s glam metal is a personal passion.
However, apart from a guitar wielding sex-bomb, what does the film offer? Well, as mentioned, the neutering of Howard is a major issue, both in character and look. Whereas something akin to Roger Rabbit would have maybe been a better way to bring the comic creation to life, Lucas and co went for a animatronics/puppet costume instead. This meant that the over the top cartoon nature was completely lost and child actors and actor Ed Gale were instead forced to try and maneuver within a confined and ropey duck suit courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic.
With the visual look really not suiting the character’s comic origin, Lucas also played about with the character of Howard, making him more family orientated, and instead of using a voice actor you would have thought would have suited the role, such as Mel Blanc or Danny DeVito, instead went for a relative unknown voice actor Chip Zien, whose delivery was, shall we say, passable (to be nice).
To make matters worse, the child actors and Ed Gale all received nominations for Golden Raspberry awards (Rassies) nominations for ‘worst new star’ for their performance as Howard, which really wasn’t their fault as the ‘acting’ involved was mostly down to the puppeteers, who had to work with shoddy equipment and a very, very bad script.
Still, at least the rest of the cast made up for the main character, right? Well, not really, as rounding off the eclectic cast was Tim Robbins, who phoned in his role and has, of course, gone on to do bigger and better things, and probably keeps Howard off his film CV. And Jeffery Jones who, frankly, hasn’t gone on to better things at all in the last few years.
Still, through all the effects, wrong cast, bad direction and general all round stupidity of the whole thing, Howard The Duck as a movie sort of works, if you ignore the supposed talent involved and see it as a cheap direct to video film of the mid-1980s.
While its big names in the direction and production stakes should have provided a superb, witty comedy that took all the comic’s best elements and made the entire movie into a classic hit like, say, Stripes or Ghostbusters, Howard is and always will be a curio that should sit happily at the back of your collection away from criticising eyes.
It should maybe be dusted off once a decade to allow you to relive the past, admire just how big Lea Thompson’s hair is and see a child in a duck suit mime with a guitar to Jimmy Hendrix’s Purple Haze.
As I said, mad.