Fast Food For the Mutants
AND OTHER MUSINGS ON HOWARD THE DUCK
My mind has been focusing lately on the epic fail of the 1986 cult “classic” Howard the Duck. Scoring an amazing 15% on Rotten Tomatoes, reviews range from “But the film, directed by Willard Huyck and written by Mr. Huyck and Gloria Katz, takes such a broad, farcical aim, that it becomes a melange of ''The Exorcist,'' ''Ghostbusters'' and ''Raiders'' itself,” from Caryn James of the New York Times, to “When the smoke clears, only one thing is certain: Howard the Duck has laid an egg,” from Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune.
Yet despite the atrocious critical response, it remains one of the top ten favorites from my childhood. So, with Comic-Con coming up this weekend (which I will enjoy viacriously via social media) and a new genre project of my own in development, I revisited this scrambled skillet of a film to try and understand why I love it and what about it made such a lasting impression.
Let's start with a stellar cast. Hot off a Back to the Future success, Lea Thompson is crimped and punked out in stellar 80s attire. She and her sassy girl band “Cherry Bomb” are the closest we may ever get to a Jem and the Holograms live action movie (including the recent Jem and the Holograms live action movie). She brings a scrappy yet vulnerable balance to Beverly and audiences have no trouble connecting with her. Tim Robbins does a quirky turn as the nerdy scientist, a role I could connect with personally even back then.
And then there's Howard. Voiced by Broadway great Chip Zien (Into the Woods), his cynical commentary on American culture is bracing and sharp. And while the duck costume is definitely successful to a point, especially for it's time, the mechanics of the face can't keep up with Zien's sarcastic stamina. Nevertheless, the human performers connect to the voice and, for me, I look past the suit and see the character and story.
Now, let's talk story for a second. A number of reviews refer to the film as inconsistent and like two movies smushed together. First, you have the rom-com relationship of Beverly and Howard as he's adapting to life in “Cleve-Land.” Then, about halfway through, we launch into full-on alien action movie. That is technically true, but looking at it structurally, it works for me. Here's how.
For the latter half to feel more connected to the first, they could have sprinkled in scenes from the science lab, but for me this reveal half way through works because we, like Howard, have no idea how he got to Earth. We connect with him as he struggles to figure out where he is and what to do, and if they sprinkled in scientists along the way, I think the audience would lose the connection to Howard and Beverly which, in the end, it the heart of the film.
Back to Beverly's band for a second, Lea Thompson sounds great on the material written and co-performed by Dolby's Cube. A few years ago, a friend of mine was kind enough to share the soundtrack with me and I tend to go through annual phases of playing this on repeat. Now is one of those times. “Don't Turn Away” is a fun 80s love ballad and “Hunger City” is a rockin' blast. And the title song, of course, which closes the film as well, is just fun!
So, why does this film work so well for me? I think it stems from always being an outsider growing up. I was the kid on the playground playing “Star Trek” when everyone else was playing sports. I was Jewish and most of my school friends were not. Once I started to understand that I was gay, this outsider feeling only grew. So, I connected to both Howard and Beverly (and even Phil) and became strongly invested in their search for connection, acceptance and understanding. Which they all found in the end by producing an amazing 80s rock concert. So the next time you're wondering if you should give Howard the Duck another chance...”Don't turn away.”