This blog post is late for several reasons. One, the first movie I watched didn’t turn out to be as hilariously bad as I hoped. It was just … boring. Two, even the second movie I watched wasn’t quite hilariously bad, hence why I’m just calling this post “Bad movies 9”. That said, this one does have its hilariously bad moments, enough that it’s at least worth talking about. Also, it’s got some big names behind it, including George Lucas, Lea Thompson (Marty’s mom in Back to the Future), Jeffery Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Hunt for Red October), and starring Chip Zien’s voice as the title character. I’m talking about the 1986 Howard the Duck movie.
The other movie I watched was the 1984 Red Sonja movie. Honestly the most interesting thing about that movie was how the director kind of betrayed Arnold Schwarzenegger by giving him a much bigger role than what they agreed on. He’s refused to work with the director since. Well, that and it was Bridgette Nielson’s first major role.
Howard the Duck is based on the Marvel comics character of the same name. He’s mostly a comedic character; a walking, talking duck from another universe. And yes, he’s also the duck that cameoed in the post-credits scene of Guardians of the Galaxy. This movie is also noteworthy in that it’s actually the first ever theatrically released movie based on a Marvel character. There were TV movies before that, but nothing theatrically released.
George Lucas first pitched the movie following American Graffiti’s major success. In the end, he’d only end up producing the role. American Graffiti’s writer, Willard Huyck, would direct. He also co-wrote the movie with Gloria Katz, another frequent collaborator of Lucas’s who helped write American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and worked as a script doctor for the original Star Wars (uncredited). It’s also worth mentioning that the three of them attended film school together.
Universal Pictures optioned the film after striking a deal with Marvel Comics, a deal that would both give them several Marvel themed rides at their theme parks and would lead to several Hulk movies. At first the plan was to create an animated movie, but when Universal wanted a summer release, Lucas suggested a live-action film instead.
During the screenwriting process, they softened Howard’s personality, putting a stronger emphasis on special effects over story. The original creator of Howard the Duck, Steve Gerber, commented on how “the comic-book series was an existential joke”. He also said of the idea behind the character, “Life’s most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view. Anyone who doesn’t believe that probably cannot enjoy reading Howard the Duck.” Katz declared while filming, “It’s a film about a duck from outer space … it’s not supposed to be an existential experience.” Despite that seemingly different opinion on the character, Gerber stated when the shooting concluded that he felt the film was faithful to both the series and its central characters.
Lea Thompson was cast early on because of her appearance in Back to the Future. For the role, she actually bought a bunch of thrift store clothing for her character, aiming for “a cross between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper.” She also regretted not getting a wig, as her character’s hairstyle took two hours a day to prepare.
Because of his reputation of working well with short people, Lucas brought in several to help portray Howard the Duck. They ended up choosing then child actor Jordan Prentice for the main physical role, and Ed Gale for the stunts. Overall, six people helped out with performing in the suit. Meanwhile, John Cusack, Robin Williams and Martin Short were all considered for Howard’s Voice. Williams actually started with the project and worked on it for a week, before quitting.
“I can’t do this. It is insane. I can’t get the rhythm of this. I am being confined. I am being handcuffed in order to match the flapping duck’s bill.”
Instead, they picked Chip Zien for the voice of Howard. Because he wasn’t hired until the film already began editing, he found synchronizing his voice with the puppet mouth very difficult.
Some of Prentice’s roles since include Spaceballs, Chucky in a number of the Child’s Play movies, the 1994 Jungle Book movie, Polar Express (he voiced an elf), and numerous TV appearances. Gale is also fairly well known, having appeared in In Bruges and a number of comedies. The only other actor that is worth talking about is Jeffery Jones, who plays a scientist who is later possessed by some sort of space demon.
As with the Super Mario Bros movie I looked at a few weeks back, Howard the Duck actually contains ambitious and groundbreaking visual effects. This was the first movie that moved objects with wires, which would be digitally removed, a technique used in Back to the Future II, Terminator 2, and even The Matrix. Despite this, there are a lot of problems with this movie’s visuals. At first they wanted to make Howard a fully digital character, but the technology wasn’t ready yet. The rushed production resulted in several of the animatronic ducks exploding, losing feathers, and several being built with the wrong proportions.
As ambitious as this movie was, it didn’t perform too well. With a budget somewhere between $30 to $37 million, it only earned $38 million. Considering movies tend to need somewhere between double and 2.5x their budget to make money, Howard the Duck bombed. It also performed poorly with the critics. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs down, complaining that it’s not enough of a comedy. Siskel specifically called it a stupid movie, saying “the story has no center; the duck is not likeable, and the … special effects … are less impressive than a sparkler on a birthday cake.”
Its bombing shut down whatever discussions they had about a possible sequel, and several of its stars carried that failure with them. George Lucas sold Lucasfilm’s animation division off – the division that eventually became Pixar. Yeah, this movie’s failure is responsible for Pixar’s existence as a film studio. Thompson accepted a role in Some Kind of Wonderful, which she previously refused, the very weekend the movie released due to the bad press.
“I wouldn’t have done that movie if Howard wasn’t such a bomb.”
That movie ended up being successful though, and helped lead to some of Hughes’ classics like Home Alone. According to Ed Gale, one of the other suit actors behind Howard the Duck, Mel Brooks hired him for Spaceballs partly to help him get back into the industry’s good graces. Brooks even said,
“Anybody who’s in Howard the duck can be in my movie”.
Interestingly enough, Gale said he receives more fan mail for Howard the Duck than Chucky, despite that horror series’ success.
As for the movie itself, well … it’s a mess, but it’s not without its fans. The movie starts in Howard’s home universe, where he’s just relaxing at home, before he’s suddenly yanked into another universe. Oh, and the scene is complete with, uh … duck boobs? Not sure why they thought that was a good idea for a PG movie.
The rest of the movie just feels strange. At times it’s trying to be funny, but it often comes across as mildly annoying. Other times it digs deep into the dramatic side of the movie, and you can feel Howard’s pain as he’s stuck in this hostile world where very few people take him seriously. The dramatic parts usually work alright. These moments are held back by the suit’s flapping lips not working too well, and that it often feels like Howard doesn’t know where he’s going. Considering the actors in the suit could only see through the barely open mouth, poor vision was a factor.
That said, after Jones’ character is possessed by a demon, the movie gets a lot more entertaining. His performance is so over-the-top ridiculous that it somehow works. The prosthetics that warp his appearance match perfectly well with his strange voice, the laugh that’s impossible to take seriously, and his grin when he’s shooting special effects at people in a restaurant. There are other parts that are ironically entertaining, like the fight scenes that are clearly constrained by the duck suit, some of the more creative duck puns (even if most of them are meh at best), and Thompson looking like she’s genuinely falling in love with a duck.
For all of this movie’s faults, her performance is actually very good considering the material she has to work with.
This movie has found a cult following since its release. Modern comic writer, Chip Zdarsky, started writing Howard the Duck in the comics in 2010. He talked about being a fan of the movie growing up, and referenced the movie often in his 2016 run, even featuring Thompson as a character. On that note, Thompson, who is now a director in addition to her acting, pitched a Howard the Duck movie to Marvel Studios following the character’s cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy. She even hoped to direct it herself. Although Marvel ultimately passed on the project, she received a positive response, and she’s said that Marvel does have plans for the character.
I’m not quite sure whether to call this a straight up bad movie, a hilariously bad movie, or a cult favourite. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this movie stands in today’s market beyond a curiosity. It won four Razzie awards, including Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, Worst New Star (the six people in the duck suit), and Worst Visual Effects. That said, there were definitely worst movies to come out that year. It’s hard to say whether this movie is worth checking out or not, but at the very least, watching Jones’s portrayal of a space demon is quite entertaining.
Next month will be Box Office Bomb month. I’ll be looking at four noteworthy bombs. There will be what is currently the most expensive bomb in history, unadjusted for inflation. There’s one legendary flop that should have never made it past the conception stage. I’ll also discuss Disney’s newest animated feature, which bombed heavily. Finally, there will be at least one movie that bombed at the time, but has since made back its money. Two of these movies are at least ok, while the others deserved their financial fates. I haven’t yet decided on the order, but I think this month will be fun.
Oh my, Howard the Duck! That film is so hilariously bad I can see why it went on to become something of a cult classic for many. You box office bomb posts sound intriguing, will look forward to those.
It’s crazy to me to think that Marvel didn’t release or even green light a theatrical release until the mid-80s, when DC started making theatrical releases in the 50s, not to mention how successful 1978’s Superman was.
Even crazier that George Lucas was somehow involved.
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I’m still laughing at how you’ve picked this one and got through this atrocity again hahaha The movie is still so fresh in my mind and I’m still annoyed at the thought of it. 😛 I wonder if he’ll ever get his own movie again in the future.
I would like to at least see some sort of animated telling of Howard’s story. I’d also be curious to learn more about Lea Thompson’s pitch for a Howard the Duck movie. She did get positive feedback, even if they ultimately passed on it.
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