Last year, a group of Israelis did something that had never been done before in their country’s storied history. They created a feature-length animated film and released it into movie theaters. Now, months later, the film has gone on to win a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Unquestionably more than just an instance of beginner’s luck, “Waltz with Bashir” is a compelling, vibrant portrait of the terrors of war and those who suffer from it.

An ex-soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, director/writer Ari Folman brings this thought-provoking documentary to the silver screen by incorporating a unique technique that combines Flash cutouts, classic animation and 3-D technologies to create surrealistic scenes similar to what you would find in the pages of a graphic novel.

This groundbreaking animation effectively provides even more artistic depth to what was already an exceptional screenplay. Conceived as an atypical approach to sharing his war experiences, the movie follows Folman’s journey in search of lost memories from the 1982 Lebanon War. As a result, audiences are subjected to a variety of breathtakingly realistic images, including the bloody Sabra and Shatila massacre and the beaches of Beirut.

While watching a foreign film comprised entirely of subtitles may prove to be a daunting task for some, the fact that this film is more of a visual experience than an audio one helps eliminate this apprehension. Folman truly understands a picture is worth 1,000 words and, therefore, lets the images onscreen do the talking rather than the dialogue. For example, instead of characters explaining how they felt in every flashback, the creators change the hues of the animation to reflect the mood and tone for that particular scene. In the end, by making the animation the focal point of this film, Folman is able to tell his story in a way that would have never been possible had he taken the customary real-life documentary path.

Although the film rarely misses a beat, dialogue between characters can be somewhat dry at times, and some of the scenes have a tendency to drag on. This is especially prevalent in some of the interview scenes in which Folman converses with other 1982 Lebanon War veterans. Yet, as soon as the interviewees begin to unravel their past memories, the flashbacks start rolling, the film speeds back up and returns to captivating audiences.

Despite contending with serious subject matter, the movie does have a few odd moments of comic relief and erotic undertones, including an almost hallucinogenic dream involving a soldier floating away on a giant naked woman and a scene where a commanding officer watches a rather explicit Ron Jeremy-esque porno, complete with a plumber and his hefty monkey wrench. While comedy is a welcome addition after some of the more dull dialogue, scenes like the one involving the porno go a few thrusts beyond what is needed to make the point Folman is trying to get at and remain tasteful at the same time.

A diverse soundtrack also helps in providing this film with its unique flavor. The music in the movie runs the gamut from classical to ’80s pop to original songs written for the film to a remake of the Cake song “Korea,” retitled “Beirut.” All in all, the music perfectly complements the overall feel and themes of the film.

The most refreshing aspect of this film, though, is that it does not attempt to make any sort of biased political statement, as is the case with most war documentaries. Folman does not take the time to delve into the politics and major players in the 1982 Lebanon War, nor does he say who was right and who was wrong in the conflict. Instead, he graphically shows the realities and widespread disaster of war in general, as well as the universal effects it can have on those involved.

“Waltz with Bashir” is not your typical animated film with talking animals, big-name celebrity voices and the English language, and it is not a popcorn flick meant for repeated enjoyable viewing. Instead, it is an engaging piece of cinematic art that not only expertly deals with a dark subject like war, but also manages to keep you riveted to your seat with stylish animated imagery.

4 stars out of 5.

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