Have you ever wondered what a mid-level Disney hit from the '70s would look like if it were directed by Terrence Malick? Yeah, me neither, but thanks to the 2016 version of "Pete's Dragon," I have a pretty good idea.

Have you ever wondered what a mid-level Disney hit from the '70s would look like if it were directed by Terrence Malick? Yeah, me neither, but thanks to the 2016 version of "Pete's Dragon," I have a pretty good idea.

We usually find ourselves talking about these remakes as shameless money grabs, but this one has a surprising amount of indie cred, particularly with director David Lowery, whose last film "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" drew both praise and comparisons to Malick's "Badlands" and "The Tree of Life" from critics (myself included).

And while Lowery didn't turn Disney's 1977 mix of live actors and a Don Bluth-animated dragon into a lush visual tone poem, there are enough of his fingerprints here to make it noteworthy. And he made a pretty great kids' movie.

Feelings alert: We meet young Pete (Oakes Fegley) on a car trip with his parents when a car accident leaves him orphaned. Pete wanders from the scene of the crash and meets an imposing but ultimately benevolent dragon.

Move forward several years. There's a legend among the locals about a dragon who lives in the woods, a legend fueled by tales of an old woodcarver named Meacham (Robert Redford) who claims he's seen it.

His daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is skeptical of his claims, since she works as a ranger and has never seen anything in the woods. Her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and his brother Gavin (Karl Urban) work for a logging company, and they've not seen any dragons.

Of course, this changes. Soon the grownups discover Pete, who has been living a pretty happy life in the woods with his best dragon bud named Elliot. Then they discover his dragon.

OK, I won't beat the Malick comparison to death here, but this is one of the more lushly shot kids' movies you're likely to see. Lowery revels in the deep woods setting, injecting a conservationist undertone that will probably set liberal-hating Twitter ablaze.

But what's also refreshing about this "Pete's Dragon" is that it isn't overly reliant on wowing with its CGI dragon - which is, in a brilliant move, furry like the Luck Dragon in "The Neverending Story." Elliot is the biggest, sweetest dog you've ever met, and the heartstrings swell accordingly.

Particularly in the wake of Netflix's "Stranger Things," it's also obvious to feel the Steven Spielberg influence here (it's basically "E.T."), and it's refreshingly well executed. The plot strains at a few points, but this one is a dragon-sized pleasant surprise.

"Pete's Dragon"
Opens Thursday
3 stars out of 4