Finally, the book can be closed on the DVD era: Howard The Duck, a George Lucas production every bit as ignominious as Jar Jar Binks, has now been made available to the tens of fans clamoring for its release. It even comes with special revisionist-history bonus features, with husband-wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (Huyck directed, Katz produced, and they scripted together) putting a shine on one of the 1980s’ most notorious failures. The critics misunderstood it, they say, or they resented Lucas’ success, or they were simply enemies of fun who wanted “an existential experience” rather than the effects-choked family adventure they were offered. Don’t buy the spin: More than 20 years later, Howard The Duck remains a black hole, unsalvageable as camp, as ’80s curio, or so-bad-it’s-good classic. It’s where entertainment goes to die.
Based on Steve Gerber’s offbeat ’70s comic-book creation, which suffered some collateral damage it didn’t deserve, the film resembles one of those Saturday Night Live sketches that has one joke and keeps going, and going, and going. The joke here is that Howard is a sentient, cigar-chomping duck from another planet, and wouldn’t it be hilarious if he crash-landed on Earth, where people aren’t used to fowl language? (Sorry, the puns in this film are infectious, like the flu.) So whoosh through a wormhole goes poor, workaday Howard from his living room in Duckworld to an alleyway in Cleveland, where he’s immediately accosted by street toughs—who, for some reason, are unmoved by the miracle of a duck trying to talk them down. Right away, the movie’s biggest conceptual problem reveals itself: Sometimes humans are unfazed by Howard, sometimes they recoil in horror. Rarely does the world seem stranger than the stranger, which is the essence of fish-out-of-water comedy.
Instead, Huyck and Katz occupy themselves with getting Howard back to his home planet almost as soon as he gets there, leaving little room for the duck’s mordant observation. Save for a creepy interspecies love connection with rocker Lea Thompson, most of the film is devoted to appropriating effects-heavy hits of the day like Back To The Future and Ghostbusters; it’s true both then and now that Howard The Duck is the embodiment of everything that was crass and wrong about ’80s blockbuster filmmaking. (Though it should be said that the old-school Phil Tippett monsters in the climactic sequence are the movie’s sole redeeming facet.) The long-in-the-offing special-edition treatment can’t resuscitate this corpse.
Key features: Mini-docs galore, including the archival featurettes and a look back that focuses much more on the “groundbreaking” special effects than the story. Best of all is “Releasing The Duck,” a 15-minute reflection on the film’s reception that goes through all seven stages of grief.