The Israeli film Waltz with Bashir is a breathtakingly original hybrid of documentary and narrative, fused together with the help of stylish, eye-catching animation. It is a serious film with some horrifying images, a reflection of a troubling time and an indictment of the evils of war, but it is also exhilarating cinema, infused with the energy and enthusiasm of a filmmaker who has found a new and remarkable way to tell a story.
Writer/director Ari Folman doesn't futz around with preliminaries. The opening sequence is a real grabber: drooling, angry dogs running through the streets, leaving destruction and cowering passerby in their wake, accompanied by furious growls and pulsing music. We then discover that this nightmare vision is, in fact, a nightmare; it is being described to Folman by his friend Boaz (voiced by Mickey Leon) and is connected to his memories of the 1982 Lebanon War, in which both men fought. Folman has blocked out his recollections of the conflict, but he later has a detailed vision related to the notorious Sabra and Shatlia massacre; however, he's not even sure if this is a genuine memory of a moment he has placed himself inside of. Over the course of the film, Folman talks with friends and fellow soldiers, a reporter, and a psychologist to unlock his own experiences--and determine why he has suppressed those memories.
The style of the piece is genuinely fascinating; the interviews are shot and edited like conversation scenes in a fictional narrative (albeit with names superimposed, documentary-style), but animated; then, as the subjects talk, their memories are seen. These sequences are basically reenactments, but the beauty and distinctive quality of the animation makes them far more involving and effective than they would have been in live action. The depth and dimension of the frames are remarkable, and the distinctive texture of the animation style (which they call "cut-out animation," a far more difficult and painstaking process than rotoscoping, which it somewhat resembles) allows Forman and his artists to take advantage of the aesthetic opportunities that animation affords; the transitions, the freedom of movement, the vivid compositions, and the occasional use of hallucinogenic and dream imagery.
There are moments here that are visually jaw-dropping: a taxi ride that turns into a journey through the jungle, a slo-mo shot of an RPG taking down a tank, a soldier's mad dance in the middle of a street that gives the film its title. Folman and his animators also change up the look of the film throughout, occasionally allowing one color (a golden yellow or deep blue, for example) to take over the palate for a scene or sequence, to great effect. The sound design also enriches the environment and frequently augments the narrative, from the startling battle sequences to a dreamlike airport scene with scattered, echoed announcements. The score and music choices also greatly enhance the soundscape, though a couple of composer Max Richter's cues are too clearly Philip Glass-influenced.
But Waltz with Bashir isn't just empty style. The storytelling is urgent and terse without being pedantic; the natural rhythms of the interviews, for example, feel like well-written dialogue, while the stories they tell are absorbing and often horrifying. This is never more true than in its third act, which explains and dramatizes the Sabra and Shatila massacres via confidently crosscut interviews that hurtle us towards the film's heartbreaking conclusion. Folman's final aesthetic choice knocks the wind out of the viewer, removing our distance and making a real story of terror that much more palpable. If a complaint can be lodged against the powerful ending, it's that it somehow leaves the viewer wanting more--and that's not a charge I can level against most films these days.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Waltz with Bashir arrives on a 50GB Blu-ray disc sporting a good-looking MPEG-4 AVC transfer. I was unable to verify this impression, but the image appears to have been transferred from a film source rather than its original digital elements (as we sometimes see in other digitally animated films, like the Pixar pictures); the fine grain, which occasionally thickens in nighttime scenes with heavy grays, would appear to bear this out. Those fleeting examples of slightly-heavier grain were the only complaints I could muster for this otherwise-excellent disc. The colors are bright and vivid in some scenes, appropriately muted and moody in others; the 1.85:1 image sports crisp lines, good contrast, and full, deep black levels.
The Hebrew Dolby True HD 5.1 audio presentation is similarly impressive; the interview dialogue is remarkably clear (Folman insisted on only shooting in sound studios), the surround channels are put to good use in several sequences (the dog chase, a vivid club scene, the "love boat" sequence, the aforementioned airport scene), and the sharp, unexpected, and well-spread gunfire of the battle scenes is startling and immersive.
An English-dubbed Dolby True HD 5.1 channel is also offered, as are both a standard English subtitle option and English SDH.
Sony has taken the care to include a full complement of special features that will please both fans of the film and animation aficionados. First up is a solid Audio Commentary with writer/director Follman; he's thoughtful, well-spoken, and concise in his discussions of the conception and execution of the film. He's also likable and fairly witty; in discussing the use of animation, he notes, "The problem is, in a way I got addicted... I can't go back to real-life shooting." The track runs out of gas somewhat before the film's end, however--the pauses get longer, the deeper he gets into the movie.
The "Q&A with Director Ari Follman" (9:19) is edited from a question and answer session following an unnamed screening of the film. It's interesting, though too choppy; the piece frequently cuts Follman off just as he gets going. Much more successful is "Surreal Soldiers: Making Waltz with Bashir" (12:03), a comprehensive but fast-paced examination of the full process of production, from initial research interviews to shooting on soundstages with video to drawing of animatic from the video (but not over it--director of animation Yoni Goldman forcefully notes, "No rotoscoping in this movie, none!") to a demonstration of the "cut-out" animation process. The featurette uses a wealth of work-in-progess footage and interviews with Forman and the animators to efficiently convey the impressive assemblage of the film. The intricacy of their work is further showcased by the inclusion of "Building the Scene- Animantics," in which four scenes are deconstructed with demonstrations of how they were put together, layer by layer, with awe-inspiring attention to detail.
The film's Theatrical Trailer (2:05), heavy on visuals, critic quotes, and English narration, fills out the package. The disc also comes with BD-Live capability, though no features were available at the time of this review.
With the inordinate number of remakes and reboots and sequels and sequels to remakes glutting the marketplace these days, it's a real rarity to view a film that we haven't seen before. But Waltz with Bashir is genuinely fresh and unique, and in spite of its somber subject matter, it is thrilling to watch--it's a picture intoxicated by its own originality, and that joy is infectious.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.