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DIRECTED BY: Jesse Blanchard
FEATURING: Voices of Jason Ropp, Steve Overton
PLOT: When the king’s line is severed, a demon’s curse comes to pass; meanwhile, Frank and Zed attempt to get through their days without too many pieces falling off.
COMMENTS: Sometimes when you dip your hand into a swirling bucket of goo, you fish out something worth writing home about. Perhaps it’s not a traditionally worthwhile film, but there is plenty of diverting violence, clever visuals, and a suspicious amount of pathos to be found in Jesse Blanchard’s years-in-the-making fantasy puppet horror buddy comedy, Frank & Zed.
The tone is set with a puppet barbershop quartet in the opening short, “Shine.” The quad of dulcet singers croon in mighty harmony before slowly enduring a splat-stick massacre by unseen forces in the audience. The three minutes of chuckles, we are told, took two months to create; Frank & Zed took six… years. The scale of ambition behind this film boggles the mind, as does the occasional depth of feeling elicited by Blanchard and his gang of puppeteers. I was reminded often that effort of this kind translates to the screen in a way that movies made by committee—even those with exponentially larger budgets and a bevy of known actors—do not.
Frank is a (Frankenstein‘s) monster-style workaday minion, created from an unknown number of people and requiring a battery to recharge his heartbeat every day. This process allows for some of the incongruously sweet character interplay between the shambling monster and his differently shambling friend, Zed. Frank may be slowly falling apart, but Zed is in far worse way; we first meet this zombie when Frank chides him for trying to nibble on a piece of his own brain idly plucked from the large hole in his head. Watching gruesome puppet monsters with a near-wordless friendship feels odd, particularly when their interactions pull on the old heart-strings. The scene during which Frank lovingly reattaches Zed’s hand, donating some of his own reinforcing nails in the process, left me almost teary-eyed.
I shall pull no punches here, however. Frank & Zed nearly crumbles apart whenever the titular characters are not on the screen. While the pair is nailed to an adequate plot-frame, I couldn’t help but suspect that Team Blanchard would have done better keeping the film focused on the rickety duo. The Pavarotti-inspired baker was amusing as a victim, but the nearby villagers were (ironically) less fleshed out than Frank and Zed; time amongst them felt like time wasted. The gore that permeated was amusing until it went into overkill. (Possessed death-mice: good; forty minutes of puppet slicing-and-dicing, a bit less so.) Still and all, this was a great kick-off to the Fantasia 2021 festival; I find it unlikely I’ll find a sweeter friendship on display than Frank and Zed’s.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“As for the inevitable Muppets comparisons, this is a darkly beautiful Fraggle Rock, a perfect exploration of a weird and wonderful world brought to live by extraordinarily talented puppeteers… But that orgy of blood is where everything gets slippy, and the charm wears thin. It shows the downside of a passion project: that there’s no one around not so personally invested that they can say ‘no.'”–Richard Whittaker, Austin Chronicle (online festival screening)