Friday, March 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

New scenes, special effects make 'E.T.' soar again on the big screen

Seattle Times movie critic

"E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The 20th Anniversary"

With Dee Wallace Stone, Peter Coyote, Drew Barrymore, Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton. Directed by Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Melissa Mathison. 120 minutes. Rated PG for language and mild thematic elements. Several theaters.
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E.T. is back, and this time he's smiling. So are audiences, at our luck in seeing Steven Spielberg's children's classic on the big screen again.

Time has flown, like Elliott on his bicycle, since "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" first arrived on screens in 1982. Back then, Drew Barrymore was a tot in pigtails, the "digital age" was still in the future, and nobody knew what Reese's Pieces were.

And while Spielberg was hardly an unknown — he'd already received two Oscar nominations, for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" — his uncanny ability to show the world through the eyes of a child hadn't yet been fully shown. But "E.T." was an enormous critical and popular success, earning some $400 million domestically on its initial release (it's the fourth-highest-grossing film in history).

The story of "E.T." is a simple one: Ten-year-old Elliott, who lives in a California suburban development with his mom and two siblings, meets a wizened little geezer who turns out to be a visitor from another planet. E.T. is a friendly ambassador, but badly wants to go home, and Elliott helps him do so.

That's the surface, but what "E.T." does so well is to capture that moment in life when childhood seems to be slipping away. Elliott is just a boy, but he's dealing with grown-up emotions — his parents are separated, his mom is sad, his older brother's friends tease him. E.T., who blends in perfectly with the stuffed animals on Elliott's little sister's shelf, is a soul mate with whom Elliott must eventually part. The boy begs E.T. to stay — "I'll take care of you" — but accepts that he must go, and in the final frames of Henry Thomas' remarkable performance, we see the young man he will soon become.

For this re-release, Spielberg presided over an upgrade of the film that digitally spiffed up some of the special-effects shots (E.T.'s face is more expressive, with a wistful smile), added a few scenes cut from the original, and enhanced the existing recording of John Williams' famous score. (Happily, rumors that the potentially offensive phrase "penis breath" would be cut have been proved false.)

Those who haven't seen the film since its first release will barely notice most of the alterations, and even Spielberg's most controversial change — the guns wielded by police officers in the chase scene have been digitally transformed into walkie-talkies — is relatively subtle.

But the new version's happiest discovery is a scene between Elliott and E.T. in the bathroom, in which E.T. gets weighed (he's 35 pounds), discovers toothpaste, shows Elliott his extended neck, and goes for a swim in the tub, smiling peacefully under the water. This scene was shot for the original release but scrapped when it proved too difficult to film the E.T. robot in the bathtub. Now restored, it adds some nice detail to the pair's getting-to-know-you phase and features funny work by Thomas.

Yes, the film does strum the heartstrings a bit too emphatically toward the end, by cranking up Williams' music and giving us perhaps one tear too many, but that's a minor quibble. When Elliott and his friends soar on their bicycles, like flying Peter Pans who must soon grow up, it's as touching and note-perfect a moment as any in the movies.

"E.T.," as a new generation of kids will soon learn, is magical.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or


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