Howard the Duck (1986) – Directed by Willard Huyck – Starring Lea Thompson, Ed Gale, Tim Robbins, Jeffrey Jones, Chip Zien, David Paymer, Paul Guilfoyle, and Holly Robinson.
I almost thought I was going to fall in love with HOWARD THE DUCK.
For the first half of the film, I was loving what I was seeing, but the film switches gears and goes from being the existentialist story of a duck trapped on Earth trying to make his way in a strange land into a silly chase film. I’m really sort of crushed at the change, to be honest, because right up until Howard (performed mostly by Ed Gale, voiced by Chip Zien), Beverly (Lea Thompson), Philsie (Tim Robbins), and Dr. Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) head to Jenning’s lab and accidentally bring a Dark Overlord to Earth, HOWARD THE DUCK is as unique a film as you’ll find.
HOWARD opens on Duckworld, where Howard T. Duck lives in a world very much like our own, except full of humanistic ducks. Whilst checking out the nude centerfold of the latest Playduck Magazine, Howard’s chair begins to violently shake, and before he can jump off, his chair is being pulled through his entire apartment building and out into space. He zips across the universe and ends up on Earth, dumped into an alley near a rock club in Cleveland, Ohio. The local ruffians knock Howard around a bit, not knowing what to make of what they figure is a medium-sized person in a duck costume, who also happens to be wearing a suit. Howard ends up dumped in the trash, but when he hears a young woman being roughed up by some punks, he jumps out, performs Quack Fu, and saves the girl.
And thus did Howard meet Beverly.
It’s not exactly love at first sight as Beverly, though kind, doesn’t really know what to do with Howard, either. So she turns to leave and the rain threatens to come down, and as she’s just about to round the corner and leave this weird experience behind her, she looks back and melts a little. “Do you have any place to go?” she asks cautiously.
“If I had someplace to go,” Howard replies sardonically, “I wouldn’t be in Cleve Land.”
I don’t really know why, but I love the way Howard turns “Cleveland” into the two-word designation, “Cleve Land.”
She invites him to her place and we get a full dose of the best part of this movie: the interaction between Howard and Beverly.
Lea Thompson is nothing short of amazing in this movie. It can’t be easy acting with a string of people (including a kid) in an upright duck costume (and in the special features section of the DVD she talks about how it was easier to work with Howard when Ed Gale was in the costume because she had real chemistry with him), but as fake and hokey as Howard looks, Thompson never treats him as anything but real. Thompson is sweet, playful, and concerned with and for Howard throughout the film, and I would much rather have seen a movie which focused solely on the relationship between the two leads.
At her apartment, Beverly is trying to play the proper host and offers to put some milk in a bowl for Howard. “A bowl?” he asks, then lets it be known he’d rather have a beer, which a surprised Beverly gives to him. Watching the two of them feel each other out is a lot of fun. Beverly can’t quite believe what she’s seeing, but much like Jayma Mays’ reaction to having a Smurf show up in her bathroom in the vastly underrated The Smurfs, Beverly’s genuine niceness allows her to look past the absurdity at the person inside the appearance. Howard is less than the perfect guest, as he’s on edge the entire time. He’s trying to come to grips with being sucked across the universe, but he won’t articulate it, so he just plays the grouchy guest to Beverly’s sweet host.
Beverly brings him to see lab assistant Phil Blumburtt, and watching Tim Robbins interrogate Howard is pretty fun, too. He thinks Howard must have superpowers of some kind, so he keeps asking him to do things that Howard can’t do. As Phil’s role increases through the movie, I really dig how he’ll go through a big explanation only to have someone point out that it’s stupid.
“I know,” Phil will say, and then launch into a new elongated theory.
After dismissing Phil as an idiot, Howard and Beverly have a fight that attracts a group of kids. Unlike the adults, the kids think Howard is awesome, and they don’t hesitate to press in and touch him. Howard turns to their chaperon and rudely tells her to, “Buzz off.” This leads to Beverly and Howard parting ways, and Howard ends up working at a sex spa after a welfare worker places him there. Unsurprisingly, this job sucks and Howards ends up back at the rock club, where he bullies and beats on Beverly’s manager until he releases Bev’s group Cherry Bomb from their contract.
It was what happens next that really sold me on HOWARD THE DUCK. Howard goes backstage to make up with Beverly and when the door opens, her band mates (which includes Holly Robinson) are thrilled to see him, having heard so much about him from Beverly. I love that. Even though we’ve spent all our time post-parting of the ways with Howard, Beverly was out there, telling her band mates about this anthropomorphic duck that she met.
Howard and Beverly head back to her apartment where they climb into bed together. She starts hitting on him as she rubs against him, and Howard becomes very nervous. In the blink of an eye, Howard has gone from leering at her shapely backside as she crawled into bed to putting on the brakes when she actually wants to take it further. It turns out she’s just having some fun with him, but she’s clearly developing feelings for him, and the bed scene is really well executed. While they’re in bed together, however (we see them share a brief kiss in silhouette), Phil has brought Dr. Jenning with him.
Jenning tells Howard he’s responsible for bringing Howard to Earth and they head to his lab to try to reverse the process. Unfortunately, from here on until the end, HOWARD THE DUCK just does not work for me. Jeffrey Jones does his best to make the possessed Jenning into a real character, but the diner scene takes forever to finish, and then the chase sequence (directed by Joe Johnston) takes forever to finish, and all the charm of the first-half is brushed aside.
It’s a shame. I really do like the heck out of the first-half of the movie, but that latter half? Painful. Still, I’ll end up buying this movie and watching that first half quite a bit.