Disney's current wave of live-action remakes of its old animated films (or "live-action" in the case of 2016's The Jungle Book) will have reached its fifth title by the end of the first quarter of 2017. And of those five films, Pete's Dragon is the clear outlier in all sorts of ways. It is, for one thing, not based on one a fully-animated feature, but on a live-action film with an animated character. Moreover, the original Pete's Dragon from 1977 is, quite unlike the other four films (and for that matter, unlike almost everything that Disney tends to consider worth pursuing as an exploitable brand), no sort of canonical classic; unlike most Disney films, it's pretty securely yoked to a solitary generational cohort, and even plenty of them remember it more as "...wasn't there a movie about a cartoon dragon?" than with any particularly passionate affection. This is maybe why, the new Pete's Dragon shares with the old Pete's Dragon virtually nothing besides the title and the dragon itself, a big green beastie named Elliot who can turn invisible to hide from any human he wants to, which is pretty much all of them except for Pete (Oakes Fegley). Which is also an important point of distinction, given that all of the other films in this cycle have been entirely based on the sales pitch, "that thing you like is in live action now" (this is least-true of Maleficent, the one that got the whole thing started off).

Perhaps for all of these reasons - certainly for the last one - Pete's Dragon is also the best of these movies so far. Improving on the original would have been trivially easy, but that's just the starting point for the new filmmakers, under the guidance of director David Lowery (who co-wrote the new screenplay with Toby Halbrooks). His last feature was the 2013 Terrence Malick homage Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and Pete's Dragon attempts most earnestly to jump right back into that mode. The film's cinematographer, Bojan Bazelli, admirably steps into that style (he's no Bradford Young, but who is?), and the result is, yes, definitely a Malick-looking Disney movie for children. It's really the damnedest thing, and the raw aesthetic style of the movie  - jam-packed with close, snug interiors lit in shades of yellows, and big forest expanses drenched in soft green shadows, and a outrageously shameless deployment of sunsets - is so rich and imperious in its thick, artful gloom, that it makes Pete's Dragon seem at least a bit more sophisticated than it actually is.

Not that "sophistication" is the be-all and end-all of children's entertainment, or that it harms the film much at all. It's just that we're in very classic Disney live-action territory here, at least as far as the screenplay is concerned. Basically, the situation is that Pete was orphaned in a car crash some six years ago and lost in the wilderness, and now the 11-year-old, having been protected by Elliot - himself separated from all the other dragons, if indeed all the other dragons exist still - is about to re-enter human society in a most psychologically discomfiting way. A lumber operation pushes into the part of these woods where Pete and Elliot live, and in the process, Pete is spotted by a girl his own age, Natalie (Oona Laurence), daughter of the foreman Jack (Wes Bentley). As it so happens, Jack's girlfriend Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a ranger in the same forest, and she takes charge of the boy, bringing him to the hospital. At the same time, Elliot's search for Pete causes him to be a bit indiscreet, and he's noticed by Jack's brother Gavin (Karl Urban), who goes a little mad trying to prove to his coworkers and the town that there is definitely a dragon in the woods.

It's all off-the-shelf ingredients: Pete starts to discover that re-integrating into human society might be nice, and Grace's father (Robert Redford) of course just happens to be the only townsperson who's ever spotted a dragon before, and it all gets quite sad before it gets happy. Indeed, quite sad, and all due credit to Lowery, to Fegley, and to the visual effects team for making the relationship between little boy and his pet blob of 1s and 0s so piercing that it actually hurts when they have to start contemplating the possibility of losing each other. It's even more impressive given that, once you move past the gorgeous cinematography, Pete's Dragon isn't a particularly stunning piece of work; the budget was much lower than most of Disney's big live-action events, and that comes directly out of the CGI (The Jungle Book this most definitely isn't), leaving Elliot looking a bit insubstantial and indefinite, and very distinctly weightless for such a massive fleshy thing. Given that just about the solitary bright point in the original Pete's Dragon was the beautiful work done by Don Bluth's team of animators in bringing Elliot to life, it's a touch ironic that the dragon is such a distinct weak point here. And it's not just the effects: the sets look a lot like sets, Pete absolutely never looks like a child who has spent more than half of his life in the woods (and he doesn't talk or act that way either, to be honest).

The miracle of the film is that none of this ends up mattering. Lowery's wise choice - or somebody's, anyway - was to avoid making Pete's Dragon any kind of spectacular; the visual effects are never there to show off, the cinematography is for that. The visual effects are simply about building a compelling, expressive character in the beautifully-designed Elliot, who has the general sense of a dog about his features and movements, but with more soulful, observant eyes. This is a small film, an intimate story where it feels like the whole of the Pacific Northwest is all just outside of town, and only maybe a dozen people live there. Ordinarily, that kind of thing would bother me, but Lowery and company use it extremely well to keep the focus tightly down around Pete and nobody else.

The result is a very simple and sweet film, using basic situations, dialogue, characters, and emotions to sketch a beautiful little sonnet of a movie for their target audience (it's definitely, 100% a kids' movie, but the kind that gives kids' movies a good name). The best you can say about the supporting cast is that they don't screw up (Redford is the only adult who gives any kind of particularly deep or resonant performance), but then that was really all the cast ever did in any '70s children's movie, and that's pretty much exactly what Pete's Dragon is: a '70s children movie done with more craftsmanship than any of them actually were, treating the children watching with more respect than the vast majority of such things. I frankly doubt that this Pete's Dragon is any more likely to become a classic than the last one did, but it surely deserves it more: in its emotional maturity and visual beauty, this is as dignified and fine as any children's movie I've seen in an inordinately long time, and rich enough that it's no less pleasurable for adults, despite being clearly made for people other than us.