My Year Of Flops Case File # 94 Howard The Duck
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It all comes down to the rat-tail. For me, nothing better symbolizes George Lucas' surreal disconnect from the world we live in, as opposed to the fantastical world inside his brainbone, than the rat-tail Hayden Christensen wears in Attack Of The Clones. Then again, it could be worse. It's entirely possible that some heroic unknown soul fought a fierce battle to convince the King of The Sci-Fi Dorks that he shouldn't try to "update" the look of the Star Wars universe for its prequels by having the storm troopers rock acid-washed jeans or Zubaz track suits, but gave up on convincing Lucas not to have the future Darth Vader don a hairstyle generally associated with insecure 11-year-olds in 1983.
Lucas is clearly a man connected to the cultural zeitgeist. Unfortunately, it's the zeitgeist of 1937. While his peers were immersed in the sex, drugs, and rebellion of the '70s. Lucas thought things like "Gee whiz! I'm gonna make the sci-fi serial to top all sci-fi serials! It'll make Flash Gordon look like yesterday's news! And I'll follow it up with a swashbuckling adventure about a daredevil archeologist! Oh it'll just be the bee's knees, I tell ya! And then maybe a murder mystery set in Radio Land! Jumpin' Gee Willikers will it ever be swell! Hey ma, more chocolate milk please!"
By the time Attack of the Clones went into production, it's likely Lucas hadn't interacted with a human being he didn't employ for decades. I imagine that Lucas now surrounds himself with an army of servants droids who carry out his every fickle whim and protect him from interacting with the strange, curious and unpredictable creature known as "humans."
It wasn't always that way. Back in the early '70s, Lucas teamed up with a husband-and-wife screenwriting team (Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck) that seemed to have an inside line on how these mysterious "humans" talk and behave. Together they wrote the script for American Grafitti. Katz and Huyck's primary responsibility involved keeping their spacey young collaborator rooted in the terra firma of plausible human behavior instead of blasting off into the cosmos of his fevered imagination. I can imagine them sitting Lucas down and patiently explaining to him, as if talking to a very small, ADD-addled child, that while, yes, it would certainly look cool, it just wouldn't make sense for American Grafitti to climax with an epic light-saber duel between Harrison Ford and Paul Le Mat or for the film to conclude with its lovable assemblage of California teens racing to their spaceships to take on the Death Star.
In appreciation, Lucas employed Katz and Huyck long after the rest of the world had written them off as a pair of hacks who'd lucked into a great project in a world-class case of beginner's luck. He commissioned Katz and Hyuck to write the script for the sequel to Indiana Jones. When the two couldn't come up with a half-decent script, he went ahead and had Steven Spielberg film what they'd written anyway.
But it was all just a warm-up to 1986's Howard The Duck, the feature film adaptation of Steve Gerber's cult comic book. Gerber's creation had serious underground cred before Lucas, Katz and Hyuck had their wicked way with it. Howard ran for President in 1976, popped up in the fiction of Phillip K. Dick and Stephen King, and was referenced in an early Pretenders song. He'd even been sued by Disney, that ultimate badge of underground respectability. Disney complained that Howard T. Duck infringed on Donald Duck's copyright. As part of the settlement, Howard was forced to wear pants. For reasons I can't quite get into, a lawsuit by Disney also forced me to wear pants as well. Fucking Disney.
According to Wikipedia, the comic-book Howard's adventures "are generally social satires, and also often parodies of genre fiction with a metafictional awareness of the medium." Uh, O.K. But the character's metafictional awareness of the medium obviously appealed less to Lucas than the prospect of turning out a big-budget, special-effects heavy creature feature about a lovable anthropomorphic misfit along the line of friend and rival Steven Spielberg's Gremlins and E.T.
Howard The Duck begins by introducing its eponymous hero in his own world. Against a backdrop of smoky jazz, the camera moves deliberately around Howard's apartment, lingering on a posters advertising "Mae Nest" and "W.C. Fowl" in "My Little Chickadee," "Breeders of The Lost Stork." as well as magazines likeRolling Egg" and Playduck. A mere three minutes into being introduced to Howard The Duck's comic-book universe, I was already hankering for a way out. See, Howard's totally a three-foot-tall wisecracking duck who acts just like a person! He thinks he's Rory Calhoun or something. That's joke number one: the artless juxtaposition of man and duck-kind. Over the course of the next 112 interminable minutes, I waited patiently for joke number two. It never arrived.
Howard T. Duck is then sucked from his universe, past some not-at-all-creepy anthropomorphic duck-woman posing topless, and into ours via an inter-dimensional ray that drops him somewhere into the grungy depths of Cleveland. A narrator explains, "The cosmos: countless worlds upon worlds. Worlds without end. In these galaxies, every possible reality exists. But what is reality on any one world is mere fantasy on all others. Here all is real and all is illusion. What is, what was, and what will be start here with the words 'In the beginning there was 'Howard The Duck'.'" "Long ago in a galaxy far, far away," it's not.
In rapid succession, Howard is kidnapped by menacing New Wavers, thrown out of a club, and finds a friend in Lea Thompson, an aspiring rocker with a giant nest of hair held in place by enough hairspray to burn a continent-sized hole in the ozone. Thompson's role was originally offered to a struggling hair-metal vocalist named Tori Amos, then of Y Kan't Tori Read (a group that, sadly enough, never uncovered the exact cause and nature of Tori's illiteracy) and then angrily rescinded when red-hot mega-star Lea Thompson, yes Caroline in the City herself, suddenly became available. This was one instance in which the fairies and pixies that act as Amos' unofficial advisers saved her from professional ruin. Though honestly, would starring in Howard The Duck really have been any less humiliating than anything else Amos did during the Y Kan't Tori Read stage of her career? Maybe if she knew how to read she would have made better choices.
Thompson's role here provides some surprising acting challenges. There is a queasy-making scene about halfway through where Howard begins jokingly hitting on Thompson and she "pretends" to reciprocate his affection. But before Howard can pummel away at a scantily clad, flirtatious Thompson with his sweaty, engorged, feather-encrusted member, she backs down and insists she was only kidding as well, thereby sparing filmgoers a sex scene nobody in their right mind would ever want to see.
But Howard The Duck has more on its mind than generating sexual tension between a three-foot-tall anthropomorphic duck and a rock vixen so dense she regularly transgresses the thin line separating "spacey" from "mentally challenged." For it seems the ray that brought Howard to Earth has unwittingly unleashed one of the Dark Overlords of the Universe. In its bid for world domination, this Darkl Overlord of the Universe takes control of the body and mind of Jeffrey Jones, transforming him into a fiendish beastie with a sinister rasp that suggests he has also been invaded by either the demon Pazuzu or The Great Gazoo, the effete little green alien that gave Marlon Brando highly dubious career advice.
Spending a whole hour pretending to be possessed by an evil alien mastermind is clearly the most embarrassing thing Jones has ever endured. Or maybe not (http://www.contactmusic.com/new/xmlfeed.nsf/mndwebpages/jones%20can.t%20escape%20child%20sex%20charges). But the Evil Overlords subplot provides the film's sole moment of glory. When The Dark Overlord's true form is revealed, it's a triumph of old-fashioned movie-making magic, a nifty monster that looks like a fearsome cross between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a scorpion. Ray Harryhausen would approve. But no movie should force the audience to wade through two hours of asinine adventure, labored duck jokes, and flimsy characterization for the sake of a cool-looking monster.
I wrote earlier that the film only has one joke, which isn't entirely fair. Half the film's humor stems from people being nonchalant about the presence of a three-foot-tall anthropomorphic duck. The other half revolves around people being shocked and horrified by the presence of a three-foot-tall anthropomorphic duck. So Howard The Duck has several jokes, really, they're all just desperately unfunny.
In Lucas and company's telling, the eponymous anti-hero comes off as the sci-fi equivalent of Poochie, the iconically lame character created to liven up a fading Itchy and Scratchy. As blandly/annoyingly voiced by Chip Zien, Howard boasts the canned sarcasm of a wacky next-to-door neighbor on a mediocre sitcom. He's all ersatz attitude and strained zaniness, a shortcoming only enhanced by the blank inexpressiveness of the film's duck costumes.
One of the great pleasures of the invaluable Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs involves watching Daffy Duck shorts in slow motion to better appreciate the insane level of detail, care, and invention that went into animating every glorious frame of classic Looney Tunes shorts, with their non-stop visual invention, roller-coaster momentum and blinding speed. Daffy and Donald Duck are two of the most expressive, energetic, and revered characters in the history of animation. The best Howard The Duck, which originated as a gonzo spoof of the "funny animals" genre, can muster, in sharp contrast, is a procession of dwarves waddling around slowly in clunky duck suits. Needless to say, it's not exactly an improvement.
A few years back, I was inexplicably geeked about reviewing the Olsen Twins vehicle New York Minute. "Wow, I can't believe I actually get paid to do something as ridiculous as review the new Olsen twins movie the day it comes out!," I found myself thinking as I settled into my seat, popcorn in hand. Five minutes into the film, I found myself brooding "Man, I can't believe I have to do ridiculous things like sit through this horrible fucking Olsen twin movie. Maybe I should have learned a useful trade after all." That's more or less the emotional arc I traveled while watching Howard The Duck. It really is as bad as its reputation suggests. Given its reputation, that's really saying something. Not even Oscar-winner Tim Robbins' feature-length homage to Thomas Dolby (who not-so-coincidentally produced the film's soundtrack) can redeem it from utter worthlessness. It's dispiritingly, soul-crushingly, how-for-the-love-of-God-did-this-get-made awful.
According to the world wide webernet, Universal President Frank Price was asked to resign after Howard The Duck's failure. In a noble act of executive seppuku, he acquiesced. Price got off easy: in many cultures, a man would be tarred and feathered for greenlighting something like this. Then again if, as its narrator suggests, there are galaxies in which "every possible reality exists," then it's possible that in some warped alternate universe Howard The Duck qualifies as a raging Secret Success instead of an abject failure.Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure