Think The Muppets directed by Quentin Tarantino, and you’re close to visualizing the blood-soaked puppet extravaganza of Frank and Zed.
Frank and Zed is possibly the most unique and fresh film to come out of this year’s tragically cut-short Portland International Film Festival. Across its short 90-minute runtime, the film tells the story of a monster bromance between a Frankenstein-like abomination and a disheveled zombie abandoned by their creator. Told entirely through puppets—the first puppet-only film since Peter Jackson’s 1989 Meet the Feebles!—director Jesse Blanchard and his crew utilize this medium to the best of its capability.
Sardonic humor is supported equally-well by unique puppet designs, evoking the exaggerated features of Jim Henson’s puppets for Statler and Waldorf. The fantastic world expressed through Blanchard’s creative story is brought to life with luscious production design and magnificent sets. Topping it all off, a brilliant dosage of practical violence elevates the film with a certain level of stylism that you wouldn’t normally see in a puppet-led film.
The film follows Frank, a semi-intelligent jigsaw puzzle of various human body parts, and Zed, a feral but entirely inept zombie. The two live in a castle, separated from the nearby kingdom by a vast expanse of woods. Years prior, their shadowy master was slain by the warriors of the village, setting off a curse that threatened their entire population. There’s an incredible contrast displayed between these two worlds—the King’s council sits and plots, planning devious political sabotage and using innocent civilians as bait, while the occupants of the village await in fear of the approaching curse.
Meanwhile, Frank and Zed live a brainless, day-to-day routine. Frank hunts to provide for Zed, and Zed recharges Frank with the castle’s elaborate electrical apparatus. There’s an endearing bromance between the two characters, weaved through the story as snippets of Zed’s tragic history are revealed.
This balance and separation between the two worlds is shattered when the King and his advisors plan to deliberately trigger the curse to accrue power. The abandoned woods start to be occupied by misled villagers, trespassing into Frank’s hunting grounds, where he mistakes them as threats to his existence. Their peace and tranquility shudders to a halt as the two factions war against each other. Amidst this, the communication between Frank and Zed snaps as the two become isolated over each other’s actions.
Making a film with a setting as expansive as that of Frank and Zed is a challenge no matter where you’re based as a filmmaker. The film has been in the works since 2015, when IndieWire covered Blanchard’s initial pitch for the film early in its stages of development. Since then, the film completed production, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign clocking in at $22,000—measly for most film production, but gigantic for an unknown team of filmmakers—and managed to finally deliver the film to the 43rd Portland International Film Festival.
The usage of puppets allows the film to escape the pitfalls that normally endanger debut films such as the low-budget look, poor sound quality and amateur cinematography. As a matter of fact, Frank and Zed relishes in its own inexpertise. It embraces its campiness, throwing out all logic in its third act in favor of a final half-hour of glorious, visceral violence.
Seeing dozens of puppets get horrifyingly massacred in an incredibly imaginative amount of ways is quite a sight. Frank and Zed isn’t afraid of not having a clean ending. The audience doesn’t need a resolution to a story that is fantastic enough already.
It’s a film that’s wholeheartedly fun and doesn’t try to be anything else. It indulges in its genre tropes and wears inspirations of The Dark Crystal and Meet the Feebles on its sleeve. It’s satirically hilarious and viscerally violent, and maintains a pace throughout that prevents the story from ever stalling or feeling boring. It’s certainly an achievement, both for being the first puppet film in 30 years, but also for being itself. Frank and Zed is a cry of passion and charm, the kind that could only come from a filmmaker who feels true passion for his craft.