Let’s face it, whether we’re talking about movies, music, books or whatever, we all think we have great taste. Because we only see things from our own perspectives, we usually use our personal tastes as a way to judge quality.
Guilty Pleasures: Howard the Duck
By Felix Quinonez Jr.
June 21, 2012
But even so, we all have our guilty pleasures. I’m talking about that song you stop humming when someone walks into the room. Or maybe it’s that movie you claim your significant other dragged you to. Whatever the case, we all have guilty pleasures and that includes me, of course. With this column I’m going to try to encourage people to stop being embarrassed for liking things they normally wouldn’t or that aren’t considered cool. I’m going to do this by celebrating movies that are my personal guilty pleasures.
In this edition, I’m going to be looking at Howard the Duck. (1986) I was only two when it came out, so I didn’t get to see it until a few years later, when I was eight-years-old.
Howard the Duck is a very interesting character with a rich history. He came to this planet…for some reason or another and often found himself in a lot of crazy adventures simply because he was a (talking) duck. He was created by writer Steve Gerber and the series was a very funny and satirical look at popular culture. Gerber has described the series as existentialist, and he has said that “the main joke is that there is no joke.”
The series contained really smart and scathing writing. And aside from spoofing genre movies, often horror, it also lampooned political figures. It was also one of the first comics to address the medium in a self aware tone. But like I said, I was eight when I saw Howard the Duck so I didn’t need the movie to be as smart as its source material and luckily for me it wasn’t.
When you’re a little kid, your concept of what’s cool is a bit odd to say the least. A lot of times when we look back at things we used to adore, we can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed. But other times we look back on these things so fondly that we can still enjoy them. For me, Howard the Duck falls into the latter category. I know I’m supposed to think it’s terrible. Since I love comic books so much, I should see this movie as the perfect example of a comic book adaptation bastardizing its source material. But when I watched it again before writing this column I couldn’t help feeling a bit like my eight-year-old self who thought this duck was the epitome of badass.
Let me just start off by saying the movie is not as bad as people make it out to be. I know that isn’t exactly high praise but, hey, it’s something…right? Like I mentioned before, the comic book was pretty smart and edgy and one of the reasons it resonated with so many people was that Howard was a stand-in for the reader. We were vicariously going on these adventures through Howard. And the movie starts out cleverly enough. We see Howard - like the viewer - sitting on a couch lazily digesting junk entertainment almost as quickly as he passes judgment on it. Sound familiar? But of course, as is often the case, something mysteriously goes wrong and a portal opens up in Howard’s living room sucking him and his couch into it. After a very unimpressive showcase of “special effects,” we see Howard land in a very seedy alley in…Cleveland.
After regaining his composure – somewhat - Howard notices a girl (Lea Thompson) being mugged. Howard rescues her, using Quack Fu. Yep, you read that right, but the less said about that, the better. So after he rescues Thompson (her character’s name is Beverly, if you’re interested) it becomes very clear that she is supposed to be the love interest. I know in the comic book Howard has a human girlfriend too but in it, they are both drawn. Even though she is human, as a reader we see two cartoon characters, so it’s not as weird as seeing a flesh and bone human being (Thompson, no less) flirting with a giant duck puppet. Seeing them very awkwardly flirt is funny enough to make the movie worth watching.
What makes it even more enjoyable is that it’s clear the filmmakers didn’t know how they were supposed to portray this budding relationship and the tone varies wildly from scene to scene. Sometimes they try to play it straight and in other parts they don’t even try to hide the absurdity. I feel like I’ve seen a million movies from the ‘80s where a cheesy pop song is played as the screen jumps back and forth between reaction shots from the girl to the guy. They can’t see each other, of course, but by the end of the song they – simultaneously - realize they belong together. We get to see that here…except it’s with a giant duck puppet. It even includes the obligatory close up shot of Howard fixing his collar. Another great scene involves Howard and Lea Thompson “playfully” talking about sex. It’s funny and…I guess a bit depressing. (But mostly funny) You can actually see the regret all over Thompson’s face.
Another reason to enjoy this movie is Tim Robbins. I’ll admit I had totally forgotten he was even in this movie, which I’m sure he didn’t mind. But he was pretty hilarious in a “are you for real?” kind of way. This is the kind of role that actors try really hard to distance themselves from. The best way I can describe his performance is to compare it to Steve Urkel. He is full of nerdy, awkward energy. He is a scientist or a lab assistant…but it doesn’t matter, he’s ridiculous.
But the star of the movie is Howard and so I have to talk about the actor who voices him. I actually had to Google him. His name is Chip Zien. (Cue the crickets) You can hear the sound of his hopes being dashed throughout the movie. At the beginning he sounds lively and excited but it seem like he gradually realized this movie is not going to be the break he might have been hoping for. And towards the end of the movie he starts adding really random pauses right in the middle of sentences. It’s awesome.
A lot of people don’t know - or care - that this movie was produced by George Lucas. Lucasfilm actually built the animatronic suits used in the movie. And I have to say they hold up pretty well. If you can look past the fact that it’s a duck using Quack Fu, you’ll see that it’s actually choreographed pretty well. And did I mention Lea Thompson is in this movie? This came out only a year after Back to the Future and she’s still looking very cute.
I know that it sounds like (besides Thompson) everything I like about this movie falls in that “so bad, it’s good” category and that’s kind of true but is that so bad? Not everything has to be Oscar worthy and unless you’re a really hardcore Howard the Duck fan, you’ll probably find this pretty funny. Like my mom always said, “sometimes the best laughs are unintentional.” (She didn’t really say that, but she should have.)
Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way suggesting you go out and buy - or even rent - this movie. But if for some strange reason it comes on or someone happens to have it and you have a few beers and absolutely nothing better to watch, check it out.