“Duck!" “And proud of it!” – The film that almost ended George Lucas’s filmmaking career

OK, in my introduction, I promised to expose what some might call my guilty film pleasures; except I don’t feel the least bit guilty about them. I like these films, and I don’t really care what anyone else thinks of them. In fact, I like these films regardless of what anyone else thinks, and I’m proud of it! De gustibus non disputandum: there’s no disputing taste (if I’m not butchering the Latin too badly – for all I know, I may have just offered to sell you a time share in the Poconos). In fact, these are films that I know that most critics and most audiences hated; and I just. Don’t. Care.

And since I’m a shameless fan of these films, I might as well start with possibly one of the biggest flops ever, the one that provides the name for this category.

The film that rates a whopping 4.1 out of 10 on IMDB.

The film that scores a mind boggling 16% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The film that won 4 Razzies, including Worst Picture of 1986 (and narrowly missed the Razzie for Worst Picture of the 80s).

The film that (according to rumors) led two Universal executives into a fistfight over which of them approved this money loser.

The film that almost ended George Lucas’s filmmaking career. (No, no, no… Not The Phantom Menace. That’s the film that did end his filmmaking career. But we don’t feel sorry for him, because he’s very successful in his second career as a toy marketer.)

Howard the Duck

Yes, I’m talking about the one… the only… Howard the Duck. I don’t care what the critics think. I find this film insanely funny, and I’m proud of it!

If you want to see just how low my taste in films can go, click More.

 

 

Look, there are no pretensions here. This film ain’t high art. It’s about a lonely, disappointed duck from a world of ducks who accidentally gets stuck in our world and has to protect an all-girl rock band, escape police and duck hunters, and fight the Dark Overlord of the Universe while he tries to find a way home; and it’s full of lots of goofy action, some mild sexual innuendo, and all the dumb duck jokes you can cram into 110 minutes. If that doesn’t already have you laughing, then you’re not the audience for this film.

This is mindless escapist humor with a very thin plot strung together mostly to have a place to hang the dumb duck jokes:

  1. Howard gets drawn from his home (chock full of dumb duck jokes) to Earth by a mysterious force, and ends up in the scariest place he’s ever known: a strange land called Cleve Land.
  2. Overcoming his urge to curl up and hide, Howard rescues Beverly the singer (Lea Thompson) from a couple of overzealous fans.
    Lea Thompson in Howard the Duck
  3. Beverly takes Howard to her scientist friend Phil (Tim Robbins), who’s really more of a janitor than a scientist. Phil promises to figure out how Howard got to Cleve Land and how to get him home. Phil makes lots of dumb duck jokes.
  4. Howard again saves Beverly and her whole band (Holly Robinson, Dominique Davalos, and Liz Sagal), this time from their unscrupulous band manager.
  5. Howard and Beverly get to know each other, flirt, and make lots of dumb duck jokes.
  6. Phil introduces them to Dr. Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) from DynaTech, a company that had been experimenting with a laser spectro-somethingorother that accidentally brought Howard to Earth. Dr. Jenning says that if they hurry, the planets will still be aligned, and they can send Howard home.
    Tim Robbins and Jeffrey Jones in Howard the Duck
  7. Beverly and Howard go to DynaTech, but find that while Dr. Jenning was warming up the machine, it overloaded and exploded.
  8. The police arrive, and lock up anyone and anything suspicious. Gee, do you think a four foot tall talking duck looks suspicious?
  9. Beverly and Howard escape with Dr. Jenning, who miraculously escaped the explosion but isn’t looking too good. As they flee across northern Ohio, Dr. Jenning gets worse and worse.
  10. They arrive at an all-night sushi bar (in rural northern Ohio, an all-night sushi bar, frequented by families and truckers – seriously!). Lots of dumb duck jokes ensue.
  11. Dr. Jenning reveals that he’s not Jenning any more. He has been taken over by the Dark Overlord of the Universe, who wants to get back to DynaTech to call down all his Dark Overlord buddies. Beverly and Howard think he’s lost a few screws; but he demonstrates new phenomenal powers in a fight with the locals. Dr. Jenning/DOotU kidnaps Beverly, because Dark Overlords need to incubate in human bodies before they can survive here.
  12. The police arrive to investigate the sushi disaster. Phil is locked in the back seat of a squad car. (Why drag Phil from Cleve Land out to the boondocks on this call? Look, if you’re asking that, you’re expecting too much sense out of this film. It’s not about the plot, it’s about lots of dumb duck jokes.)
  13. Howard helps Phil out of the car, and they escape on an ultralight airplane. There follows one of the more looney chase scenes in film history, as police cars chase Howard and Phil on the ultralight back to Cleve Land; and also lots and lots and lots of dumb duck jokes.
  14. Howard and Phil break into DynaTech, steal weapons from the research lab, and fight Dr. Jenning/DOotU to rescue Beverly. More dumb duck jokes ensue.
  15. Howard defeats Dr. Jenning/DOotU; but in the process, the real Dark Overlord of the Universe emerges from Dr. Jenning; and the final climactic battle begins.
  16. Explosions! Special effects! More monsters! A crucial decision! More dumb duck jokes! And a rock-and-roll ending!

Now the science in this film is utterly ludicrous, about as flimsy as anything this side of The Fifth Element (and that’s mighty flimsy). It may seem strange that somebody who’s into Blue Collar Space like I am wouldn’t be bothered by such incredibly bad science. But I calibrate my suspension of disbelief based on the subgenre of the film and what I expect from it. So if it’s a comedy adventure about lots of bad duck jokes, I’ll accept a laser spectro-somethingorother that can violate the speed of light and reach across light years in instants and transport a duck without him dying from vacuum exposure. Similarly, if I’m watching Star Trek, I know I’m watching squishy science fiction where improbabilities like teleportation, FTL, time travel, and cross-fertile alien species are “normal”. If I’m watching Star Wars, I know I’m really watching Dungeons and Dragons in Space (really bad Dungeons and Dragons in the case of Episodes I-III). But if I’m watching a purportedly Hard Science Fiction adaptation of a classic novel of the genre, I don’t want to see bugs that can fart rocks across 60,000 light years in days even though those rocks are leisurely tumbling through space at speeds that the eye can follow (I’m talking to you, Paul Verhoeven!).

And the special effects range from “eh” to “Wow!”; but they’re mostly on the “eh” side. They’re just not that special, with a few exceptions. But as I said in the intro to my first review, special effects don’t interest me for the most part. I’m impressed when they’re so good that I forget they’re there (i.e., almost all of the special effects in the Lord of the Rings trilogy); but otherwise, I don’t generally judge a film by its effects. Suffice it to say that the duck suit sometimes is less than perfect; and the shots of Dr. Jenning/DOotU are cheesy enough that they could’ve set the film in Wisconsin instead of Ohio.

No, this film isn’t about plausible science or slick effects; it’s about lots and lots and lots of dumb duck jokes. But I’m can’t tell you any of them, because that would ruin the best part of the film. They’re not exactly puns, most of them (I have a low tolerance for puns); but they’re juxtapositions between a human view of the world and a duck view. And that juxtaposition strikes me as funny. Scholars of humor distinguish between jokes that a listener finds funny once vs. funny always, and how funny always are rare. Well, for me, these are funny always.

OK, OK, I’ll give you one of the jokes, so you can judge for yourself; and in fact, I already did, in the title of this review. In the heat of battle, Phil yells, “Howard, look out! Duck!” “And proud of it!” I giggle just typing it. If that joke’s too dumb for you, well, you know what you’re in for here.

So if so many critics and audiences hated this film, why did I like it so much?

  1. Some have suggested that the only appeal to this film is Lea Thompson in bikini briefs. While I won’t deny that scene has a certain appeal, I should point out that the audience I saw the film with was 50% female; and after the film let out, 100% of us were making dumb duck jokes, waddling through the parking lot, and singing “Quack, quack, quack!” It wasn’t just a guy thing. And besides, I’m firmly of the opinion that neither bikini briefs nor even gratuitous nudity can salvage a truly bad film (I’m talking to you, Paul Verhoeven!).
    Lea Thompson in Howard the Duck (and in bikini briefs)
  2. Tim Robbins, then a little known actor, is delightfully geeky as Phil. A lot of movie portrayals of geeks are offensive. The actors aren’t playing geeks, they’re mocking geeks. But when an actor throws himself into the geek role, he’s a lot funnier.
  3. Although some of the special effects are cheesy, one effect is phenomenal: the Dark Overlord of the Universe. Oh, sure, they can do more sophisticated CGI work today; but they can’t be more imaginative. When the Dark Overlord of the Universe finally made his appearance – a long, drawn-out, cleverly staged appearance – I thought to myself, “Whoa, that monster’s ugly… Whoa… That is the ugliest monster I have ever seen!” 24 years later, I still stand by that. That reveal shot is still burned into my brain and still haunts my dreams.
  4. We got to see Jeffrey Jones get the snot beat out of him. Now that may not sound funny in and of itself; but that was the same summer where Jeffrey Jones got the snot beat out of him in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And later that summer, in the miniseries Fresno, Jeffrey Jones got the snot beat out of him. It just seemed to be Beat the Snot Out of Jeffrey Jones Year; and somehow, that added up to a whole lotta funny.
  5. Growing up in Michigan and having driven a lot in northern Ohio, I recognized a lot of the references (even though I doubt they shot any of the scenes at the real locations), and that added to my amusement. To this day, I still find myself pronouncing that city in Ohio as two words, Cleve Land.
  6. I find the film surprisingly quotable. Besides Cleve Land and “Duck!” “And proud of it!”, I find myself often quoting the film at appropriate moments, Now admittedly, some of its best lines aren’t exactly original; but the film has left its mark on those lines. When I’m in a software project disaster and I say “This does not bode well,” most think I’m just quoting a cliche. I’m not; I’m making a Howard the Duck joke. The fact that no one knows that, makes it doubly amusing for me.
  7. Did I mention lots and lots and lots of dumb duck jokes?

So that’s my opinion, and I’m proud of it! You don’t have to agree; but I encourage you to ignore the critics. What do they know, really? Run – do not walk – to tubeCore, download Howard the Duck, and decide for yourself. If you do, and you hate it, feel free to leave me a comment telling me how awful my taste in movies is. I can take it! And if you like it, leave a comment, too! There aren’t many of us around, so it’s always nice to find another loon (or duck, as it were).

But either way, it’s an experience I think you should try once in your life. It’s not like it’s a complete waste of your time, money, and brain cells (I’m talking to you, Paul Verhoeven!).

You can watch Howard the Duck on Amazon Video on Demand, Buy the DVD from Amazon, or rent it from Netflix. Not a Netflix member? Click here.

3 Comments

  1. Posted May 23, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    I believe the translation is “there’s no accounting for taste,” but I’m splitting hairs here.

    I’m sure this review is funnier and better than Howard the Duck ever was, but that’s beside the point. The point is that we needed be ashamed of what we like! I get that! I might even watch this, but I don’t expect to agree with you. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, anyone?

  2. Mike Croteau
    Posted May 25, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    HOLY COW! I loved this movie as a kid! Was one of my favorites. Completely forgot about it and its awesomeness. I need to watch again and reunite with this great movie.

  3. Martin L. Shoemaker
    Posted May 26, 2010 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    I’ve never seen Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, actually, but I’ll check it out. Thanks!

    Mike, I watched Howard again for this review. I still laughed at all the jokes, even knowing they’re coming. It’s absurdly fun for me. I like the way online streaming makes it easier to find old favorites that you’ll never find in your local store. When I’m in the mood for a certain film, “We can order it” takes way too long!

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