It’s one of the world’s hoariest stories–the one about a boy and his dog, and the hazardous journey they must take together for some high-minded purpose–but Carroll Ballard serves it up with such dramatic insight and visual beauty in “Duma” that it almost seems newly-minted.

This isn’t, of course, literally a boy-and-his-dog story; a cheetah replaces the canine, so it might be called a boy-and-his-cat tale. But the end result is much the same. And Ballard is an old hand at this sort of thing, having earlier made “The Black Stallion” (1979), “Never Cry Wolf” (1983) and “Fly Away Home” (1996)–the latter about a girl and her geese. It’s experience that serves him well; in collaboration with cinematographer Werner Maritz, he uses the gorgeous South African vistas with the eye of a master. He also benefits from a savvy script by Karen Janszen and Mark St. Germain, which touches all the right buttons without getting too lachrymose or stentorian in the process; from excellent animal footage, in which only rarely does the editing fail to disguise the difficulty of the shots; and from an excellent human cast.

In the last respect Ballard has been especially fortunate to find a young boy, Alexander Michaletos, who quite simply hits a home run as Xan, a tyke who raises an orphaned cheetah cub he and his farmer father (Campbell Scott) discover along an isolated road and aims to return the now-grown animal to the wild after his dad dies and his mother (Hope Davis) moves them to the city (with the intent that the cheetah, Duma, would be placed in a preserve). The effort requires a thousand-mile trek across forbidding territory, made much more difficult when his father’s old motorcycle, which Xan has appropriated, breaks down along the way and they’re forced to continue on foot.

Happily Xan finds a friend–a native wanderer called Rip (Eamonn Walker), who’s initially a potential threat but soon becomes a guide and protector. Together the trio make their way through desert and lush landscape and eventually reach Rip’s native village, near which Duma finds a companion and Xan must reluctantly break his long-standing tie with the animal and return home to his mother.

In the hands of a director less skilled that Ballard, “Duma”–based on a memoir by Carol Carwthra Hopcraft and her son Xan, which was much less boys’ life adventure than the script contrived by Janszen and St. Germain–might well have degenerated into something hokey and bathetic. But instead it emerges as the class of the genre, not only because the director and cinematographer are at the top of their game, but because Michaletos proves an absolute natural; it’s not clear whether he has other performances in him, but this one is dead on. Walker avoids all the stereotypical traps in his character, projecting innate nobility without becoming blandly perfect, and both Scott and Davis strike sympathetic and credible parental figures.

It would be a pity if a really strong live-action family film like “Duma” got lost amid the big-budget animated blockbusters being churned out by the Hollywood majors. It’s as good as this sort of thing gets, and deserves to be seen in a proper auditorium rather than on DVD.