Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
On his commentary for Waltz with Bashir, Writer-producer-director Ari Folman laughs when he remembers seeing the credits for Pixar's Finding Nemo, where forty people worked just on the digital lighting schemes. For Bashir, the entire art and animation crew was eight.
Waltz with Bashir is a remarkable, beautiful animated film. It's pigeonholed in the contradictory-sounding category of "animated documentary" but like any docu is an artistic examination of a factual subject, a subjective essay. Folman's subject is his own experience as an Israeli soldier in the First Lebanon War in the early 1980s, and that of others he knew and some he did not. The personal investigation becomes a survey how war is experienced by its combatants, and also the nature of selective memory and responsibility. Folman realized that by putting several traumatic war episodes out of his mind, he'd effectively banished them from his memory. He talks to several old friends who have had similar reactions. As Folman pieces together the soldiers' recollections from 25 years ago, Waltz with Bashir becomes a collective fever dream, a semi-surreal odyssey through the lives of young men in a bizarre situation.
Movies and warfare go together so well that it's difficult to separate the thrills of simulated combat from an author's intent to make an anti-war statement. My screening of the supposed anti-war picture Platoon was attended by bloodthirsty types that hooted and hollered in approval at every gory killing. Oliver Stone's attempts at irony and outrage were effectively ignored. Whether desired or not, every show that portrays men in combat is going to look glamorous to young men and boys.
The stylization of the animation in Waltz with Bashir, allied with its aspect of personal testimony, largely overcomes this problem. Folman and his animators effectively eliminate the glamour. The drawings of the young Israeli soldiers have personality, but not the kind one can identify with. And their stories are definitely not heroic. The combat in Lebanon is an abomination from the get go. The frightened soldiers shoot at anything or nothing, slaughtering whatever comes into range, such as a family in a car. When they're fired upon, their reaction is to panic and run: the lone survivor of a disabled tank swims six miles south to reach his own lines. The combat doesn't seem real, even when it's happening. One could be playing on a beach one moment, and blowing up a neighborhood the next.
The animation fits the subject matter exceedingly well. The highly flexible digital cut out animation has a very realistic look. People and hardware are not distorted in any way, and no transformations take place -- things don't change shape. Digital effects are used to add interesting lighting treatments, smoke and atmospheric effects. Nothing is rotoscoped, so the figures and settings have an interpretive feel, as opposed to the xeroxed look of other shortcut animation techniques.
The design choices are remarkable. We react to the images as both "real" and "cartoonish" at the same time. The animators pull off interesting approximations of effects we see in live action movies, such as blurred motion and selective tinting. In the early stages, as Ari and his friends are describing their subjective daydreams and nightmares, Waltz with Bashir develops some highly charged surreal imagery. Twenty-six dogs representing chaos and terror prowl the streets of Beirut in one scene. Ari hallucinates a pubescent fantasy of an enormous nude woman emerging from the sea to initiate him into adulthood. One sequence illustrates an Apocalypse Now- like chaos of idle fun and crazy warfare, while a quick furlough to Tel Aviv sees Ari alienated amid a punk nightclub culture that doesn't acknowledge the slaughter going on just a few miles up the coast.
As the story reaches its most serious content, later sequences become monochromatic and more closely based on news film docu footage. The key traumatic incident that serves as the focus of the soldiers' collective memories turns out to be a three day massacre of Palestinian civilians carried out by the Christian Phalange, an armed faction allied with the Israelis. While the Israeli soldiers observe and do nothing, the Phalangists slaughter thousands of helpless refugees. Soldiers report what they see to command centers that already seem aware of the killing. Back in Israel, top government officials are very aware of what's going on, but the killing is allowed to continue.
We're so accustomed to seeing images from the Middle East of carnage and wailing women that we're surprised by the effectiveness of Waltz with Bashir's conclusion. Ari Folman's artful animated depictions collide with real news film, which suddenly springs to terrifying life: this is real, it happened, people did this.
Waltz with Bashir begins by examining personal denial, and moves to a final condemnation of all participants in wars, where the ability to vacate political and moral responsibility results in horribly opportunistic atrocities.
Sony's Waltz with Bashir is a knockout, even on standard gauge DVD (a Blu-ray is also available). The animation is beautifully designed and executed, showing what taste, talent and artfulness can achieve even when not supplied with top technical advances: 3D digital animation is used mostly for spectacular scenes and special effects.
Ari Folman provides a pleasant commentary, pointing out that many of his filmmaking staff can be seen in animated form in the background and margins of the story. He praises his company highly and is generous with credit; he thinks that this is only Israel's second animated feature, after a stop motion entry from 1961. Folman defends some of his content choices well but doesn't convince with his reasoning behind the "porn" scene, a quick and crude representation of the porn videos the soldiers watched on breaks. It may be honest but it seems a distraction from his main points. Mr. Folman does say that a PG version of the film has been prepared that covers its nudity.
A making-of featurette allows the animators and digital effects people to show off their excellent work. A Q&A has Ari Folman answering question placed by viewers at a screening. He says that financing was difficult to secure. The docu producers directed him to animation people, and animation funders said his concept was a documentary.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Waltz with Bashir rates:
Supplements: Commentary with Ari Folman, Making Waltz with Bashir, Q&A with Ari Folman
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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