History, Legacy & Showmanship

Laying a (Cinematic) Egg: Remembering “Howard the Duck” on its 30th Anniversary

October 31, 2016 - 12:01 am   |   by
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“It’s hard to tell who the movie is for. It’s too childish for adults and too provocative and snarky for kids.” — Film historian/author Caseen Gaines

The History, Legacy & Showmanship column here at The Digital Bits typically celebrates popular and significant motion pictures and TV series. Periodically, though, we will look back at unpopular or maligned productions to examine if the passage of time warrants a reevaluation. So with this in mind, The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective for Howard the Duck on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.

Howard the Duck, based upon the 1970s Marvel comic book series, starred Lea Thompson (Back to the Future, All the Right Moves), Tim Robbins (Bull Durham, The Shawshank Redemption) and Jeffrey Jones (Amadeus, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and featured a talking, cigar-chomping duck from another planet that is zapped across the galaxy to Cleveland where he meets a musician who attempts to help him return home.  [Read on here...]

Howard the Duck posterThe infamous feature film was directed by Willard Huyck (Best Defense), executive produced by George Lucas (Star Wars) and written by Huyck and Gloria Katz who (with Lucas) also wrote the screenplays for American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Radioland Murders. Howard the Duck was a high profile failure upon its release and spearheaded an uncharacteristically poor and unmemorable year for Lucas and his company, Lucasfilm Ltd. Both of his productions, Labyrinth and Howard the Duck, which were released only five weeks apart from one another, performed dismally at the box office with each failing to recoup its enormous cost. (The year 1986 also saw the termination of Marvel’s original Star Wars comic series and the cancelation of the animated Droids and Ewoks television series. And Howard the Duck snapped Industrial Light & Magic’s six-year streak of Visual Effects Oscars. About the only bright spots for Lucas that year were the home-video release of Return of the Jedi, cable television premiere of The Empire Strikes Back and premiere of Captain EO at Disneyland.)

The Bits’ retrospective on Howard the Duck features passages from vintage film reviews, a listing of the movie’s “showcase” presentations, a compilation of box office data that places the movie’s performance in context, and an interview segment with a group of authors, historians and film industry analysts.

So, was Howard the Duck justifiably blasted by critics? Did Howard the Duck understandably bomb at the box office? Does Howard the Duck deserve to be reevaluated several decades later? Well, you decide….

 

HOWARD NUMBER$

  • 0 = Number of weeks nation’s top-grossing movie
  • 3 = Rank among top-earning movies during opening weekend
  • 4 = Number of Golden Raspberry (“Razzie”) awards
  • 5 = Number of months between theatrical release and home video release
  • 8 = Number of Golden Raspberry (“Razzie”) nominations
  • 20 = Rank among top-earning movies of 1986 (summer season)
  • 28 = Number of 70mm prints
  • 43 = Rank among top box-office rentals of 1986 (calendar year)
  • 53 = Rank among top-grossing movies of 1986 (legacy)
  • 1,554 = Number of opening-week engagements
  • $34.98 = Suggested retail price of initial home video release (LaserDisc)
  • $79.95 = Suggested retail price of initial home video release (VHS and Beta)
  • $3,262 = Opening-weekend per-screen average
  • $5.1 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross
  • $9.8 million = Box-office rental (domestic)
  • $11.2 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
  • $16.3 million = Box-office gross (domestic)
  • $21.6 million = Box-office rental (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $21.7 million = Box-office gross (international)
  • $34.5 million = Production cost
  • $35.9 million = Box-office gross (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $38.0 million = Box-office gross (worldwide)
  • $47.8 million = Box-office gross (international, adjusted for inflation)
  • $76.0 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $83.7 million = Box-office gross (worldwide, adjusted for inflation)

Lea Thompson in Howard the Duck 

A SAMPLING OF MOVIE REVIEWER QUOTES

“After the movie was released everybody said that it was insane to make a movie about a duck from outer space. But, I don’t know, I think it would have been possible for Howard to maybe have worked if only they had started with a funny, likable duck in a comedy. Instead they made a grim, worried duck in a special effects adventure. And then they filled the soundtrack with bittersweet and even downbeat music to be sure that we didn’t get to feeling too good. What a miscalculation!” — Roger Ebert, Siskel & Ebert & the Movies

“Donald, Huey, Louie, Dewey, and even Daffy can rest easy; Howard is no threat to the duck pecking order on this planet. And that’s no wise quack…. Cartoon characters frequently make good cartoon films; this one didn’t. Howard the Duck has plenty of cheek, but no tongue to put in it.” — Dick Wolff, The Seattle Times

“A hopeless mess. A gargantuan production which produces a gargantuan headache.” — Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide

“The second half of the movie is devoted to truly magnificent visual tricks, created by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic company and equal to anything in that director’s Star Wars.” — Caryn James, The New York Times

“Daffy Duck will be pleased to hear he didn’t miss any career opportunities when he wasn’t chosen to star in Howard the Duck, although producers certainly could have benefited from his talents.” — Jane Galbraith, Variety

“Jeffrey Jones, who played the unlucky scientist, made a deep impression as the emperor in Amadeus. Since then, he has fallen on tough times. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he had the year’s most humiliating role as a crazed principal willing to go to any lengths to catch Ferris in the act of playing hooky. His role in Howard the Duck requires him to do a massive amount of eye rolling as the Dark Overlord takes control of his body. You feel sorry for Jones, going through undignified screechings and contortions. His predicament makes you wonder if acting is a suitable profession for a grown man.” — Scott Cain, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Lucas’ redoubtable Industrial Light and Magic Co. was behind all this sturm und drang, so you can believe that it is the very top-of-the-line magic, but did this summer, or this year, or this decade, for that matter, need one more impeccably turned-out giant monster — tentacled, suction-cupped or chest-bursting? The sickening, rolling-over-and-over crash of this many more cars? One more threat of a nuclear-powered meltdown? The imagination of the opening is a hint of what the movie might have been: a view of our world that made kids consider it from another angle — as well as a spoof of the superhero. But what are all the pleasant duck effects in the face of any of this numbing waste? In this respect, the movie’s PG rating is a joke. And the movie itself is a pretty base canard.” — Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

“The most inventive creature to hit the screen since E.T. A good-natured adventure with a terrific cast and nifty special effects.” — Tom Green, USA Today

“Willard Huyck, the director, and Gloria Katz, the producer, collaborated on the screenplay, as they did on American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Their touch is not as sure this time. There’s good stuff around the edges of the film — all that word play and all those visual gags demand that you pay attention lest you miss something even in the slow scenes. But at the center, no magic.” — Bill Cosford, The Miami Herald

“Has George Lucas lost his way? He’s specializing in black holes this summer. The master of the Skywalker Ranch, godfather of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, was apparently also the godfather to the new film Howard the Duck, written by his colleagues Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, produced by Katz and directed by Huyck. What I’d like to know is when did any of them think this witless and overblown fantasy was worthy of such time and expense?” — David Foil, (Baton Rouge) State Times

“The cinematography is crisp and lush as one might expect from a Lucas production, but director Willard Huyck has his hands so full trying to convince people the dwarf in the duck suit is real that he has little time for subtleties that might have made Howard take flight.” — Paul Johnson, (Little Rock) Arkansas Gazette

“As a mild-mannered scientist possessed by a demon from outer space, Jeffrey Jones is amazing. H-bomb explosions in his eyes, a ghastly critter unreeling from his mouth, his chassis outlined in electricity, Jones’s performance makes the picture worth seeing.” — Catharine Rambeau, Detroit Free Press

“A lot of things get blown up in this movie — or crashed, or smashed, or sometimes atomized. For sheer destructiveness, the film calls to mind Steven Spielberg’s legendary failure 1941, though Howard the Duck displays little of the malicious joy or stylistic grace that Spielberg showed off when he was smashing his toys. But the destructiveness of Howard the Duck springs from simple desperation. In the absence of anything resembling structure, character, point of view or sense of purpose, there is no place else for this empty project to go.” — Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune

“Put the blame on Huyck and Katz. To be sure, they’re credited with the screenplay for American Graffiti. But, lest we forget, they are also responsible for French Postcards, the film about American college kids in Europe that succeeded only in giving small movies a bad name. They are also responsible for the script of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the Raiders sequel that succeeded only in giving big movies a bad name. With Howard, they have the triple crown: They’ve succeeded in giving medium-size movies a bad name.” — Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Howard the Duck is about as cute as Earl the Dead Cat. He is a symbol of the general lack of charm of this picture. What we end up with, after a rambling first half, is a fairly interesting adventure story about monsters from outer space, with a really intriguing performance by Jeffrey Jones as a sleazy, fire-breathing ’overlord.’ The last 20 minutes or so, when Lucas and director Willard Huyck pull out all the stops with bizarre special effects, are OK, but not good or original enough to save a movie that, on the whole, is mediocre and lacking in the one thing we thought Lucas had — imagination.” — Harper Barnes, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Howard the Duck is a movie for bored 9-year-olds who have run out of ways to pester their mother until school resumes. Once kids see this movie, they’ll be anxious to get back to those algebra books, which may seem more lively than this plastic space toy devised by George Lucas with his left hand as if he, too, was trying to kill time and didn’t have an idea in his head…. Howard the Duck has one major moment of wonder: Who, you wonder, was it made for? It’s too silly for young teenagers, too hip for pre-teens, too dorky for older teens and too scary for tots.” — Gerald Nachman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Will Hollywood never relax its fanatical diet of action fantasies? There must be other human beings who would like a better balance of movies about people whose problems can’t be solved with massive weaponry.” — Ed Blank, The Pittsburgh Press

“Quite frankly, the whole thing gave me a headache. Howard himself is supposed to be a cynical but charming fowl, but he’s mostly foul, a feathered costume devoid of personality.” — Roxanne T. Mueller, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer

Howard the Duck is an example of Hollywood gone loony. For whom has this lavish but boring picture intended as a major summer entertainment been made? If it’s for children, it’s in atrocious taste and steeped in so much special effects violence that parents might think twice about taking an impressionable youngster. If it’s meant as a comic strip for teen-agers or young adults, the script insults the intelligence. Senior citizens straying in might just want to take aspirin. Howard the Duck is a presentation of George Lucas, which makes the mess all the more astonishing. Lucas, as the world knows, is a king of special effects. But is merely piling on effects enough anymore?” — William Wolf, Gannett News Service

“Lucas might consider getting the old team to work on something with Indiana or Jedi in the title. Howard is reputed to have cost $52 million to produce. To make such an investment pay off, the film would have to perform like Top Gun or The Karate Kid II. It may, in fact, perform more like Return to Oz. Whatever Howard the Duck cost, it looks expensive. It is a virtual catalog of special effects, a stunning demo reel for Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic effects studio. What it lacks is a coherent story, a dependable hero and a convincing title character.” — Ted Mahar, The (Portland) Oregonian

Howard the Duck may be the most highly publicized, widely anticipated movie of the summer — but this special effects extravaganza is a major letdown. Oh sure, there are some interesting elements here, some funny ideas and a lot of in-jokes for movie buffs, and I’m the guy who usually likes off-kilter comedies… Buckaroo Banzai included. But Howard the Duck is so self-conscious, so frenzied, so overloaded with special effects and duck puns that it winds up just being loud and obnoxious.” — Christopher Hicks, (Salt Lake City) Deseret News

“Mr. Lucas knows how to spend money, and he can produce a few dazzling sequences, but imagine his impotence if he were forced to make a movie about articulate people.” — David Brooks, The Washington Times

“While it would not be fair to say that Howard the Duck is a turkey, it’s nonetheless true that this live-action adventure comedy about a feathered, web-footed visitor from outer space is not well done. In fact, this duck is half-baked.” — James Verniere, The Boston Herald

“Once — and only once — is there any real magic. It occurs in the movie’s first 10 minutes when we see Howard in his cosmopolitan apartment on Duck World, just before he’s snatched by a cross-dimensional laser. Here the puns and parodies come thick and fast — a TV commercial in which athletic fowl in football uniforms shill feather fungus salve, copies of Rolling Egg and Playduck magazine (complete with centerfold), posters for the movies Splashdance and My Little Chickadee starring Mae Nest and W.C. Fowls. This is the sort of deadpan playfulness that should have dominated the entire movie. So we breathe a sigh of regret when, to save the world at film’s end, Howard is forced to destroy his only means of returning home. A sequel set entirely on Duck World would have been far more welcome than Howard’s tiresome antics in the back alleys of Cleveland.” — Henry Mietkiewicz, Toronto Star

Howard the Duck

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