Howard the Duck, George Lucas' best movie about a talking duck, finally arrives on DVD.
Yes, that is Tim Robbins. Howard is very much a Lucas production, and the sensibilities never mesh. An early scene of Howard working in a sleazy massage parlor maintains a bit of Gerber's humor and a later set piece that takes place in Joe Roma's Cajun Sushi is a positively Gerberian take on '80s culinary fads. But after a while, everything takes a backseat to indifferently staged action set pieces and a special-effects extravaganza in which a Lovecraft-ian beastie attempts to take over the world, with only a duck standing in its way. While a scantily clad Lea Thompson gives a game performance as Beverly—now a struggling member of an all-girl band—her flirtatious relationship with Howard feels creepy. It's one thing for a pen-and-ink woman to have a thing for a sentient duck, quite another when the woman doing the feather-stroking is made of flesh and blood.
The film hollows out Gerber's creation and uses what's left as a vessel for a tacky and trend-chasing would-be crowd-pleaser. In short, Katz and Hyuck didn't get it and still don't. "This is a movie about a duck from outer space," Katz says in a new interview on one of the DVD's bonus features. "It's not supposed to be an existential experience."
Except, of course, it was supposed to be exactly that. Comics writer Alan Moore, whose dislike for adaptations of his books has been widely documented, is fond of telling a story about Raymond Chandler. When asked if he worried about Hollywood ruining his books, Chandler replied, "They're not ruined. They're right there on the shelf." But if Gerber's story illustrates anything, it's that Hollywood casts a long and lasting shadow. What little mystique Howard the Duck has earned over the years can be traced to its unavailability. That mystique is likely to fade soon after viewers drink in the film's opening scene, which finds Howard lounging in his Duckworld apartment, reading a copy of Playduck beneath a poster for Splashdance. It's '80 blockbuster filmmaking at its most thoughtless, all laser beams and quips. Gerber's original, which has been collected and reprinted a couple of times (including last year in a handsome, if expensive, hardcover), remains as crankily original as ever. More people may know about Howard from his misadventure in filmmaking than his genre-busting adventures in the comics, but, thankfully, the latter are still right there on the shelf.
Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.