One night, after coming home from work, Howard sits down in his armchair to relax and watch TV… But suddenly a dimensional gateway opens in his living room and swallow him into a mysterious vortex which brings him to our days! Following his arrival on Planet Earth, Howard meets and befriends the beautiful glam rocker Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson), and her friend Phil Blumburtt, a clumsy laboratory assistant. It isn’t long before Howard discovers that he was brought to Earth by a lab accident, and that he isn’t the only one to have been transported: a sinister extraterrestrial creature known as the Dark Overlord was also brought through the wormhole, and is now trying to take over the world. Only Howard, Bev and Phil can save the day!
Does this synopsis sound familiar? Well, that’s because it’s the same as Superman,Thor, or 99% of all superhero sci-fi films ever made! So, what kinds of awesome superpowers does Howard have? Can he shoot lasers from his eyes? Is he superhumanly strong and fast? Is he invincible? No! But I’ll tell you what’s so incredible about him… Howard is a DUCK! You know, a duck, the bird that says “quack!” and tastes delicious when roasted in the oven with a nice orange sauce. Due to the casting agency being unable to find a suitable waterfowl with sufficient acting and stunts training, producer George Lucas instead cast a little man to wear what is basically a Hollywood-quality “furry” suit, making Howard look like Donald Duck in his elderly age, losing his feathers and looking all wrinkled and grumpy all the time. Today the role would be filled in with CGI and “motion capture”, but at the time, a man-size duck suit was the best deal they had, and while it’s obvious that the costuming department spent hours designing it, it hasn’t aged well in the slightest. You will either laugh your tail feathers off at how stilted and un-lifelike Howard is, or be scared to death, what with his strange googly eyes, lack of facial expressions or any signs of warmth, and his aggressive, mean appearance. Thankfully, I was firmly in the “laughing” camp. So, yes, George Lucas somehow greenlit and produced a movie about a duck; the film is based on a Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber, and while a talking duck-man works well on the printed page, it does not translate to 1980s cinematic technology at all – the concept is just too ridiculous and too technically-ambitious to be tackled without making it seem like a Duck Tales mescaline trip.
The other special effects don’t fare any better: the Dark Overlord is a Claymation creature whose stop-motion movements harken back to the days of King Kong, but what was impressive in 1933 and already dated in 1986, is definitely not so impressive in 2017, especially since the Overlord looks like a cross between Alien and the Great Mighty Poo from the Nintendo game Conker’s Bad Fur Day. The final battle scene, in particular, is so silly that it’s impossible to believe that it was made by the same producer as Star Wars, 10 years after we were first introduced to Luke Skywalker!
The acting in the film fares slightly better. Tim Robbins makes an excellent Phil Blumburtt, playing up the silly, lackadaisical, and slightly “stalker”-y aspects of the character to make him an effective comic relief sidekick, even though the film is practically a comedy in and of itself. Robbins’ performance is a knowing homage to Jerry Lewis in his “king of crazy” period, particularly The Nutty Professor (Le folle notte del dottor Jerryll). Jeffrey Jones (Amadeus, Beetlejuice, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – Una pazza giornata di vacanza) is appropriately hammy and over-the-top in his performance as the Dark Overlord’s human “vessel”, before he turns into a spider-mud-sausage meat-hybrid at the end of the film. Beverly, however, is completely bland, insipid and uninteresting; this is probably in no small part due to the fact that she has the misfortune of being played by Lea Thompson (Marty’s girlfriend in Back to the Future – Ritorno al Futuro), a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Thompson struggles to deliver even the basics of movie acting, and whatever potential Beverly had as a character is buried deep beneath her sheer inability to emote. She’s probably second only to Mario Lopez in my “worst actors” list!
One major criticism I have about this film concerns its tone: for a film about a talking duck who fights an alien monster, it’s surprisingly gritty and at times a little coarse. It’s the kind of film which I would love to be able to show to a 6-year-old child, but the script is plagued with clunky, inappropriate sexual innuendo, and discussions about Howard’s inability to make love to Beverly – something which, frankly, I did not want to see discussed in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not shocking or offensive, but the very concept of a duck-human romance reeks of bestiality, and doesn’t do anything to advance the plot any further. Worse, one scene set in Howard’s duck-people planet even contains a disturbing shot of a lady-duck’s realistic breasts and nipples in full view! And you thought Donald Duck not wearing any pants was bad.
All in all, though, the film is thoroughly enjoyable if only for its stupid storyline and terrible special effects, plus a tongue-in-cheek tone which constantly acknowledges just how silly the concept of a talking duck was in the first place. It’s an entertaining and often hilarious movie… but for all the wrong reasons! Remember, just because I enjoyed a film doesn’t mean it’s good, and in this case, the Golden Rule of Cinematic Calamity is in full effect: it’s both the very worst movie of the 1980s, and, if you can recognize the inherent comedic value of a guy waddling around in a duck suit, you might just end up considering it one of the very best.
Score: 8 out of 10.
Recommended for: people who like ducks; fans of cheesy sci-fi B-movies.
Next week on THE CINEMATIC CALAMITY, the MASTER OF MOVIE DISASTERS will review the animated atrocity, FOODFIGHT, aka, “don’t watch this!”