Definitions of genre tend to grow nebulous as exceptions to rules pile up, but none are more malleable than “kids’ movie,” the only line in the sand drawn by age. The lone criterion outlining this wide umbrella appears to be a rating of PG or tamer, and the accompanying implication that children can see it without wigging out. But that allows for wide variations in form and tone, from more specific generic sub-distinctions (kid-friendly horror, like the recent Ghostbusters movie, is one example) to blurring between them (every kids’ fantasy movie is also a comedy, at least a little). Any category that collects Norm Of The North, The B.F.G., and Kubo And The Two Strings over a single year has to be pretty elastic.
David Lowery’s top-to-bottom rework of moldering animation/live-action hybrid Pete’s Dragon certainly fits the description, and yet it moves with a more sophisticated and mature sort of grace than most. The film has a child for a protagonist, was marketed to children, and nails the childlike sense of awe that most movies waste millions trying in vain to add during digital post-production. Even so, the cinematography from gun-for-hire Bojan Bazelli imbues the film with a sense of serenity rarely found in entertainment geared for younger viewers, unseen since Robert Richardson’s virtuosic work lensing Hugo in 2011. Not incidentally, Richardson snagged the Oscar at that ceremony; likewise, Bazelli and Pete’s Dragon have more than earned their spot at the grown-up table this year. The loping long takes of La La Land and expressionistic close-up work of Moonlight will undoubtedly make it to the big show, but the Academy would be remiss to sleep on Bazelli’s gift for capturing natural splendor just because he’s technically a cog in the kiddie-remake industrial complex.
Lowery disposed of just about every aspect of the 1977 original aside from the bare skeleton of its plot, dumping the 2-D cartoon dragon for a gentle CGI giant covered in emerald fur and ditching the songs altogether. The most radical departure, however, is his overall approach to the material. Lowery refuses to stoop, instead bringing the intellectual property up to his level; he suffuses every scene with a touch of the lyrical poetry that earned his previous film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints widespread acclaim. An earthy, welcoming naturalism sets this film apart from the MDMA-cut-with-Pixy-Stix hyperactivity of Trolls and the like, and the bedrock of that is Bazelli’s gorgeous photography.
Cinematography cannot be effective free of context; it succeeds insofar as it matches and supports the story being told, and Bazelli’s methods sync up perfectly with Lowery’s ethic of soft tenderness. A journeyman cinematographer with a resumé recently typified by the flopped and forgotten (The Lone Ranger, Rock Of Ages, Burlesque, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Bazelli brings an artistry and clarity of intention to his camerawork on this film unseen since his days collaborating with Paul Schrader and Abel Ferrara. Lowery’s Dragon plays out like an unplugged Fleet Foxes cover of King Kong, with civilization’s crass concerns shattering nature’s pristine idyll. A boy scurries away from the car crash that’s taken his parents’ lives and into the forest to be raised by Mother Earth, and in a more immediate sense, the affectionate and doglike dragon he dubs Elliot. The prevailing mood of the film is a gentle one, and Bazelli reproduces that vibe on an aesthetic level.
Every facet of Bazelli’s camerawork aims to go easy on the eyes. He eschews the teal-orange color scheme that’s dominated so many recent studio projects and instead traffics in earth tones, conjuring a lushness and sense of calm through greens, browns, and grays that show the crucial difference between “dull” and “washed out.” Bazelli favors the warm over the hot and the cool over the cold, shooting indoor scenes by tempered golden lamplight that casts shadows emphasizing smooth curves on faces and scenery. His camera is observant without being intrusive; Bazelli privileges longer takes and stationary shots, moving the camera with slow fluidity when he must. (Even the action scenes manage to excite while never rising to the register of “white-knuckle.”)
It has long since passed the point of cliché to describe a film’s setting as “almost like a character,” but Pete’s Dragon wouldn’t be what it is without its Pacific Northwest backdrop. Bazelli, who captured the same American region in Gore Verbinski’s remake of The Ring, fully communicates a specificity of place while also capitalizing on it, depicting the rollings wilds of Washington state as a purer plane of being. For the film’s many outdoor scenes, the world-famous overcast weather filters the sun into a nicely ambient natural light that gives everything that just-been-rained-on look of tranquility and fertility. The dense thickets of trees also have a marvelous effect on the sunlight, dappling our characters through the leaves to evoke the childhood-specific experience of being at play in the great outdoors. And besides being self-evidently beautiful, Bazelli’s lovingly shot natural tableaux help reinforce the film’s chief theme of environmental preservation against the encroaching menace of loggers and developers, personified in the film by unsympathetic lumberjack Gavin (Karl Urban).
All of Bazelli’s visual choices—the subdued color palette, the cradle-easy camera movements, the low-contrast light filtering—get much closer to approximating the feeling of being a kid than most movies that purport to be for them. The caffeinated quick cuts and candy-colored imagery commonly found in children’s programming can’t capture the interludes of carefree innocence that define the early years. In one of the most moving sequences of Pete’s Dragon, wild child Pete and his gargantuan pet stop by a stagnant brook for a moment of leisure. Elliot hops in and out of the water with a golden retriever’s eagerness while Pete giggles and enjoys the clement weather, entirely in the moment with no exterior stresses. All the while, Bazelli’s halcyon magic-hour glow makes it look like they’re frolicking in the Elysian Fields. The rarity of moments like this—when a film can stop moving and contentedly just be—in children’s films comes down to a matter of perspective; Lowery and Bazelli look back on this period of life with the wisdom of adulthood, knowing that peaceful memories of freely doing nothing are the most cherished of all.
Bazelli’s reputation isn’t what it used to be, which is to say that G-Force is a far cry from King Of New York. But with Pete’s Dragon, he proves that he hasn’t lost any of his skill for purposefully representing mood and setting onscreen since he painted that grubby portrait of the Big Apple for Abel Ferrara. On paper, Pete’s Dragon sounded like another bloodless cash-in on commodified nostalgia, but Lowery and Bazelli actually manage to evince a true yearning for the simplicity and ease of childhood. So, for your consideration, an increasingly rare achievement from the Hollywood studio system in one of its direst years to date: a film with a fully formed visual sensibility anchored by breathtaking beauty, working in perfect harmony with its story. The kids, as ever, have no idea how good they have it.