THE amazing news about Howard the Duck has nothing to do with what he looks like on screen, or whether the film shares the goofy irreverence that made the 1970’s comic book, on which the movie is based, a cult favorite. The surprise is that Howard turns out to be dispensable in his own movie. ”Howard the Duck” begins as a mild satire about a duck who fell to earth, but midway through, the star is upstaged by horrifying demons and dazzling light shows.
Howard’s pop-cult standing isn’t lost here, for he offers a wry view of contemporary America. On a duck planet that is the double of Earth, he lives in an apartment decorated with family photos – there’s Howard in his longhaired hippie phase – and with movie posters (”Breeders of the Lost Stork,” with a duck in an Indiana Jones hat, reminds us that George Lucas, who produced ”Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is executive producer of ”Howard”). A laser accident blasts him into a rainy night in Cleveland, where he fights off some punks hassling a young woman rock singer named Beverly. She in turn rescues Howard from the streets.
The joke is that Howard looks and acts just like a human, but with feathers. He’s 3 feet tall and obviously a person in a duck costume (actually the credits list eight actors in the role). With his realistically blinking eyes and an expressive bill, he does have a certain charm. His webbed feet and a tuft of tail feathers poke out from his suit, but this duck in man’s clothing is smart and sensitive, and his relationship with Beverly as fresh and unpredictable as any human male-female friendship. She calls him Duckie, he calls her Toots, and there’s a serious question about whether they should sleep together. Beverly (Lea Thompson, who was Michael J. Fox’s mother in ”Back to the Future”) deftly matches Howard’s straightforward delivery; it’s too bad that so much comic sincerity is wasted on predictable lines (”No more Mr. Nice Duck”). Still, it’s a pleasant enough spoof for 45 minutes or so.
Suddenly, we’re into a different film. The laser accident that brought Howard down has also unleashed the Dark Overlords of the Universe. One of these evil spirits takes over the body of a scientist. The second half of the movie is devoted to truly magnificent visual tricks, created by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic company and equal to anything in that director’s ”Star Wars.” Dr. Jenning is gradually transformed into a ghoulish monster with a voice that would scare off an exorcist. Bolts of electric-blue light fly from his hands, flames charge out of his eyes, and a snakelike claw writhes out of his mouth toward Beverly.
It’s up to Howard to rescue Beverly and stop evil from conquering the world. And though Howard races to Beverly’s aid, the chase is a flimsy plot device; amid all the special effects, Howard’s personality disappears.
There’s some logic at work here: Howard, himself a comic-book parody (you can’t miss his resemblance to Donald Duck), comes to seem human, and is thrown into an adventure plot that spoofs every comic-book horror-movie convention from superheroes to the Bride of Frankenstein. But the film, directed by Willard Huyck and written by Mr. Huyck and Gloria Katz, takes such a broad, farcical aim, that it becomes a melange of ”The Exorcist,” ”Ghostbusters” and ”Raiders” itself.
”Howard the Duck” opens today at Loews Astor Plaza and other theaters. Choose the part that suits your taste, but this is a case where half a movie – either half – is apt to be better than the whole.
”Howard the Duck” is rated PG (”Parental Guidance Suggested”). Some of the special effects are gruesome enough to be upsetting to anyone who’s squeamish, at any age. A FOWL BREW – HOWARD THE DUCK, directed by Willard
Huyck; written by Mr. Huyck and Gloria Katz, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Michael Chandler and Sidney Wolinsky; music by John Barry; produced by Miss Katz; released by Universal Pictures. At Loews New York Twin, Second Avenue at 66th Street; Loews 34th Street Showplace Triplex, west of Second Avenue; Loews 84th Street Six, at Broadway; Loews Astor Plaza, Broadway at 44th Street, and other theaters. Running time: 111 minutes. This film is rated PG.
Beverly Switzler…Lea Thompson; Dr. Jenning…Jeffrey Jones; hil Blumburtt…Tim RobbinsHoward T. Duck…Ed; Gale; Howard T. Duck…Chip Zien; Howard T. Duck…Tim Rose; Howard T. Duck…Steve Sleap; Howard T. Duck…Peter Baird; Howard T. Duck…Mary Wells; Howard T. Duck…Lisa Sturz; Howard T. Duck…Jordan Prentice; Lieutenant Welker…Paul Guilfoyle; Ronette…Liz Sagal.