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The story sees Howard arriving on Earth after being pulled from Duckworld (he was sitting in his armchair reading PlayDuck). He immediately encounters Beverly, a young attractive rock singer being attacked by two thugs in an alley. Using his Quack-fu, he defeats them and Beverly takes him home where he explains what has happened. The next day, she introduces Howard to a bumbling young scientist named Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins) who thinks he can help get him home. Meanwhile, the government gets wind of Howard so Beverly, Phil and fellow scientist Dr. Jennings (Jeffery Jones) try to hide him. Meanwhile, a dark power from an alternate universe takes possession of Jennings and kidnaps Beverly. It’s a fight to the end to try to save the girl . . . and the world.
Directed by Willard Huyck, based on a Marvel comic, and produced by George Lucas, Howard the Duck has all the right parts but somehow doesn’t come together how is should. The problems start with the production itself, which is live-action, and as this is 1986 and there is no such thing as CGI on the scale of what modern audiences are used to, Howard is a disaster of a character. A number of actors wore the tiny costume on camera, which looked exactly as such, a costume with a face that has nearly no expressions and a mouth that vibrates rather that talks. Aside from Howard, the rest of the cast tries but can’t find the right tone, save for Lea Thompson who does her best with what she’s given and is the most convincing. Trying to be large-scale, the film is a hopeless mix of poorly achieved special effects and direction with an unlikable hero who is crass, perverted and sarcastic, which had weight in the comics as the irreverent anti-hero, but here, doesn’t. Howard is a far different creature, and trying to make him a leading man, er duck, just feels forced and awkward. While there are some laughs, and a few good set pieces, the overall experience is disappointing.
Beverly (Thompson) and Howard are in her apartment after a long day. Howard had resolved himself spending the rest of his days on Earth but his attempts as assimilation did not met with any success. Beverly thinks differently, and as she strips to underwear for bed, she tells Howard he should be her band’s new manager. He retorts that he can’t and needs to get back to his own kind, though seeing her climb across the bed in her pink panties has him second guessing and the duck starts to flirt. Believing him harmless, she invites him into the bed to watch some television and he gleefully accepts. As they recline into the pillows, she complains that she has a good life but just can’t find the right man. Howard replies, as he strokes his feathered fingers up her arm that maybe it’s not a ‘man’ she is looking for. She catches the point and starts to play along, teasing him about his animal magnetism, cranking up the sexual vibe and suggests that the two should do it, though he instantly regrets his words and starts to panic. She keeps up the pressure and even begins to lift off her slinky cropped camisole, but Howard stops her and confesses it was only a joke. She admits she was too and offers him one kiss, seen only as shadow through a sheer curtain.
Howard is a small bundle of attitude and right from the start has been a sharp-tongued, sarcastic bird with a cocky brand of sass. From the opening scene, admiring the latest models in the PlayDuck magazine, he has been presented as a sexually active fellow with a healthy lust for physical relationships. With Beverly, who is, let’s not forget, an entirely different species, he finds himself highly attracted. His flirting is relentless and his swagger like that of a seasoned playboy. He even wears a smoking jacket in the evening. Naturally, Beverly sees through all this and has little concern. Yet, in this moment, knowing he is a reckless flirt, she strips down her underthings as if the duck were a pet. She then gets up on the bed on all fours and presents herself as she adjusts the covers, in what would be in any other situation easily seen as a sexually teasing position.
Interestingly, Howard is aroused by the site of the leggy girl, which might seem surprising, but given how female ducks on Duckworld are very much like human women, complete with protruding breasts and nipples (seen on more than one occasion), it’s not so curious. He loves women, even human ones (he tried to bite the butt of an employment agency clerk when she bent over). Beverly lacks a bill and feathers, but the shape is right, even if it is three feet taller than he’s used to. Howard though is not like a human male and Beverly is not sexually attracted. His persistent come-ons are par for the course, she’s learned, but here, in the bed, as he goads for something physical, she finally relents, at least in his mind.
What is curious about Howard at this point is his complete turn around. The very moment Beverly expresses interest in his advances, Howard is frozen in fear. He’s not turned off, in fact far from it. His head feathers rise up in a not-so-subtle visual cue as to the state of things happening in his own pajamas. But he can’t perform. It’s pretty clear that Howard is most likely a virgin pretending to be experienced, a common trope in teen sex romp films. Terrified of actually having to do what he presents as his favorite thing, he breaks down in panic, hiding under the covers with a plea for her to be gentle. This is really important in defining the character of Howard and surprisingly really helps make him much more likable. As the wise-cracking, smarmy duck, Howard was a little bitter and out of reach. Now, as he reveals his greatest vulnerability, he becomes much more identifiable. We suddenly recognize a little bit of ourselves and even though he’s a duck, he expresses a much-needed bit of humanity. What starts as creepy voyeurism ends in endearment.
Steve Gerber (Marvel comics), Willard Huyck
Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones, Tim Robbins