Sometimes movies get reputations they don’t deserve. Gigli was heralded as a new low in disastrous filmmaking, but there were at least a dozen films the same year that were worse. Ishtar is a famous flop, but it’s actually a half-decent comedy. And Howard the Duck has long been considered one of the worst misfires in film history, but if you watch it, you’ll see that– oh, son of a bee, it actually IS that bad.
Based on a Marvel comic book, Howard the Duck came about when George Lucas, fresh off the success of the Star Wars trilogy, thought it would be fun to put his name on a giant pile of poo. (He enjoyed the experience so much that it became his standard operating procedure.) He knew there was a huge untapped audience of people who love animals but hate comedy, and Howard the Duck was just the thing!
So what is the movie all about? Well, do you like duck puns? Then you’re in luck — or should I say DUCK! (No. I should not.) The premise is that there’s another planet just like ours except populated by highly evolved, four-foot-tall ducks who have evidently copied Earth life and simply replaced the names of everything. They say things like “No more Mr. Nice Duck!” and “I’m a dead duck!” Instead of Playboy, they read Playduck. Instead of Rolling Stone, they read Rolling Egg. (They weren’t trying very hard with that one.) The title character’s mail comes addressed to “Howard T. Duck,” which suggests his middle name is “The” and that he has what must be the most common surname on his planet. I mean, it’s a world full of ducks. Do you have any idea how many Ducks are in the phone book?!
One night, for no reason, Howard and his La-Z-Boy — I mean LA-Z-DUCK!!!! — recliner are sucked through a space vortex and deposited in Cleveland, Ohio. You can imagine how disappointing this would be for anyone, let alone a space duck from another planet. Howard is immediately beset by punk teenagers who, for no reason, grab him and drag him into a nearby rock ‘n’ roll bar. A “band” (for lack of a better term) is “playing” some “music” (ditto, ditto), with the lead vocals being caterwauled by Beverly (Lea Thompson), a woman whose frizzy hairstyle is a sobering reminder that you should never, under any circumstances, live in the 1980s.
Beverly and Howard become friends when she is assaulted by hoodlums in the alley after the show and Howard rescues her with his knowledge of “quack fu,” which is just like kung fu except that you don’t roll your eyes when someone mentions kung fu. It starts to rain pretty hard, so Beverly invites Howard to sleep at her apartment, because we all know the last thing a duck wants is to get wet. The next day, she takes Howard to see a scientist friend of hers, Phil (Tim Robbins), who is fascinated by the dwarf-size talking duck and wants to study it, which offends Howard and Beverly immensely, and so WHY DID SHE BRING HOWARD TO SEE HIM IN THE FIRST PLACE?? He’s a SCIENTIST! What did you think he was going to do with a biological oddity? Invite it to dinner? Ugh, I hate this movie so much.
At this point, for no reason, Beverly and Howard have a spat. It’s been less than 24 hours and already she’s sick of dealing with Howard’s complaints about wanting to go home and get away from this terrifying planet. “Maybe you are trapped in a world you never made, but I have problems of my own!” she cries, not the least bit melodramatically or irrationally. They go their separate ways, with Howard resolving to get a job and make the best of Earth life. He goes to an employment agency and, despite not having ID, a Social Security number, or lips, instantly gets a gig as a janitor at what appears to be a sex club/bathhouse, though surely that cannot possibly be the case. He quits immediately, not because he’s appalled to be working at a sex club, but because he doesn’t like working. Howard is actually kind of a jerk. Instead of Howard the Duck it should have been called Howard the Duck, But with ‘Duck’ Spelled with an ‘I’ Instead of a ‘U,’ though I realize this would have been unwieldy on theater marquees.
Throughout the movie, whenever people see Howard, they are amazed or frightened by the fact that he’s a talking duck. This seems wrong, though. He doesn’t look like a real duck — he looks like a midget or child in a duck costume. Everyone’s reaction ought to be: Hey, look! A midget or child in a duck costume! When you see Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, you don’t think, “Wow, look how big that mouse is!” Of course, I’ve never been to Cleveland. I don’t know how gullible they are there, or how accustomed to oversized talking animals.
Anyway, Howard and Beverly eventually reunite, for no reason, just in time for them to almost have sex in her bed. This is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen, and I used to live in Utah. They’re just platonic pals, of course, but then Howard makes a joke about kissing her, and she responds by taking the joke too far, cozying right up to Howard seductively, both of them clad only in slinky pajamas, and it becomes obvious she’s not joking at all and would like to make sweet, sweet love to Howard the duck. The idea is particularly disturbing because it forces us to confront the fact that we don’t know how birds go about having sex, exactly. Do they have penises? Are those penises feathery? We are totally ignorant of the workings of reproducktion. (DO YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE??)
Luckily for humanity at large, Beverly and Howard’s fowl deeds are interrupted by visitors. They are scientists, and they are here to deliver the plot. (Everything up to this point has been set-up.) Apparently the reason Howard is on Earth is that the scientists were horsing around — or should I say DUCKING around!!!!! — with a laser they invented, and it accidentally worked in reverse and dragged Howard here. None of that makes any sense, though, so they keep talking fast and hope we won’t notice. When the laser summoned Howard, it also summoned a demon from another dimension. (Oops.) The demon has taken possession of the body of a scientist named Dr. Jenning (Jeffrey Jones), though Howard and Beverly find this notion preposterous and laugh at the absurdity of it. Anthropomorphic ducks from alien planets? Fine. Demons? Don’t be ridiculous!
The demon wants to use the laser to bring its fellow demons to Earth, which seems reasonable (you’d get lonely), while Howard wants to use the laser to send himself back home again. Howard figures that if the laser brought him here, he can just hit the “reverse” switch and it will do the opposite. Believe me, if this logic made any sense, I’d have hit “rewind” on my DVD player and un-watched the movie.
Much yelling and wackiness ensues, with the “humor” stemming from Howard’s wise-cracking — whoops, I mean wise-QUACKING!!!!!!!!! — nature. No matter what the situation, he’s always shouting some glib one-liner. He’s a regular Rodney Duckerfield! He’s like Martin Lawrence, except not funny. (So he’s like Martin Lawrence.) In the end, Howard must choose between going home and saving Earth from the demons, and he saves Earth, even though Earth is a scary, dirty planet that produces things like Howard the Duck. As a reward, Beverly hires him to be her band manager. I assume she sleeps with him, too, but a gentleduck doesn’t kiss and quack.