Howard the Duck (1986) Review

Rating: 1.5 Stars

The following review contains spoilers.


We open on the planet of Duckworld, a world exactly like Earth in nearly every way, except the dominant lifeform evolved from ducks, and therefore everything that exists in their culture is named with a duck pun, similarly to how everything in our world is named with a human being pun. One day, Howard T. Duck is sitting in his recliner watching TV when suddenly he’s struck with a mysterious beam that seizes him (and his chair) and pulls him across the universe all the way to Cleveland, Ohio, outside of a music venue, where musician Beverly is performing with her band.

As tends to happen in 80s movies, when Beverly is walking home alone from the club, two dudes pop out of the shadows to sexually assault her. Howard, who’s been hiding in a trash can from this strange new world, can’t stand by and let this happen, so he employs the art of Quack-Fu to chase the punks away. Beverly, grateful to her rescuer, and not altogether bothered that he’s a talking duck, offers him her place to crash while he gets sorted out.

The next day Beverly takes Howard to a “scientist” she knows, Phil, who turns out to be merely an assistant at a museum. Phil sees fame and fortune from his “discovery” of intelligent alien life, but Howard, disgusted at being treated as a means to Phil’s personal glory, tells off both Phil and Beverly and decides to try to make it on his own. He goes to an employment agency, which gets him a job as a towel boy at a brothel (do brothels use employment agencies?). Revolted by his situation, he decides to go to the club where Beverly performs and get back in her good graces by assaulting her sleazy manager and securing the money he owes her band.

Cut to that night at Beverly’s place, where Howard suggests he may be interested in some cross-species romance. She calls his bluff and comes on to him pretty hot and heavy, but he demurs. It’s unclear why this scene was included or who they thought the audience for this movie would be when they were filming it, but one can’t help but feel a touch of pity for Lea Thompson who had to spend a day of her precious life on this film set in her underpants trying to seduce a little person in a duck costume.

Anyway, Phil barges in (“The door was open!”) with some other scientists, and say they figured out how Howard was called to Earth, and may be able to send him back. It’s not clear why Phil, an assistant at a museum who at one point is asked to mop up a pile of vomit, is friends with these guys, but hey, “science.” Howard is eager to get home, but when they get to the facility, the machine malfunctions and explodes (though not really, because it still works later on, so I’m not clear what happened here). Anyway, the police show up, and immediately decide to arrest Howard. We’re barely halfway through the movie by the way.

So Howard escapes, and he and Beverly and the head scientist, Jenning, go to a diner. Jenning is acting strange, and literally telling everyone that he’s a demon from space inhabiting Jenning’s body, but they just ignore him, because apparently that’s a bridge too far. Meanwhile, Phil is arrested for no reason. Back at the diner, some rednecks don’t like the cut of Howard’s jib, and a brawl breaks out, and quickly every human besides Beverly and Jenning wants to literally cut Howard’s head off and consume him, despite the fact that he is obviously a sentient being. Jenning uses his demon powers to free Howard, who escapes, but Beverly isn’t so lucky, and she’s kidnapped by Jenning, who intends to use her as a vessel for another space demon he plans to call down. It’s back to the space laser facility for them!

The police show up the diner, still with Phil in custody, and Howard helps Phil escape. They then go around the back of the diner, find a hobbyist’s small plane, and decide to steal it, despite neither of them having any idea how it operates. Though it’s a plane, and the police only have cars, it proves to be mostly useless as a getaway vehicle, as they always fly directly above a road, and so a very long chase sequence ensues.

Apparently the diner was very, very far away from the space laser facility, as it takes Jenning and Beverly several hours to get back to it, though they do detour at a nuclear power plant that was en route so Jenning can absorb its energy. This idea that he has to absorb energy and can run out of energy never comes up again, so don’t worry about it. Anyway, eventually Jenning ties Beverly to a table underneath the intact and working space laser and starts some long countdown to bring another space demon to Earth.

Phil and Howard arrive at the facility, see what Jenning is doing, and turn right around to go look for weapons. Phil is aware of some kind of super laser gun (I forget what he called it, sorry) that was built there for the military, but which proved too costly to mass produce. They retrieve the giant gun, tie it to a golf cart, and proceed to confront Jenning. A blast from the laser gun separates the demon and restores Jenning to normal, but now there is a giant demon to deal with. And now it appears a whole cadre of space demons are being beamed down (who suddenly don’t need to inhabit a body anymore, but whatever). Howard can only stop them by destroying the space laser, ruining any chance he has to go back home, but saving Beverly, Phil, and the rest of our world.

Cut to Beverly back on stage, though a much larger one than we’d seen her on before, performing a song about Howard the Duck, with Phil apparently now her tech guy, and Howard her manager. Howard gets caught up in some ropes or something and accidentally winds up on stage, so Phil of course gives him a guitar, and everyone rocks out, while the massive crowd goes hogwild (or should I say… duckwild). Also, the Howard the Duck song is terrible.

Best Parts:

The practical effects are actually pretty good. The Howard the Duck costume is surprisingly functional and believable for the mid-80s. The stop-motion giant space demon at the end has a certain charm to it. And the car chase with the weird little plane that Howard and Phil are in is entertaining and has some legitimately impressive stunt work.

Worst Parts:

Why did they make this? What was their goal? It feels in so many ways like a stereotypical 80s teen adventure movie, but the first scene involves not one but two scenes of topless female ducks with bizarre human-like breasts and nipples. It would’ve been so very easy to not include that. So is it supposed to be a Fritz the Cat-like parody movie for adults? If so, it doesn’t succeed on that front either, with not an ounce of satire or wit to be found anywhere. At the very least you’d think they’d be satirizing characters like Daffy Duck and Donald Duck, but there’s nothing.

Howard the Duck is portrayed in the story as if he’s this charming and likable figure, but he doesn’t actually come across that way at all. Tim Robbins as Phil is so spastic and over-the-top as to be unbearable. Lea Thompson is fine I guess.

It’s just kind of boring. The story meanders about and doesn’t make much sense. The entire Howard the Duck vs. space demons plot that the movie suddenly takes on in the second half feels completely tacked on and doesn’t fit at all with the movie up until that point.

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