‘ET’ still appealing after 20th anniversary alterations

Whenever filmmakers go back and “improve” movies that have already attained classic status, the result is almost always disappointing.

George Lucas added new special effects to his “Star Wars” trilogy, Francis Ford Coppola expanded “Apocalypse Now” by nearly an hour, and Steven Spielberg shot new footage for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Special Edition.” In each case, though, it’s the original films that endure in memory.

There was reason to be nervous, then, about Spielberg’s decision to tweak his classic “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” in honor of its 20th anniversary.

But the good news is that Spielberg knows he got it right the first time around, and the changes he has made are, for the most part, subtle, effective and purely cosmetic.

Thanks to computer-generated effects, E.T., the horticulturist from another planet stranded on Earth, now emotes better than ever.

When 10-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his friends soar through the air on their bicycles, they no longer look like stick puppets. Even E.T.’s spaceship has been spruced up.

Most of these changes are so subtle, some people won’t notice them at all. More noticeable are two previously deleted scenes Spielberg has put back in: A brief extension of Elliott’s disappearance on Halloween, and a longer, humorous sequence in which Elliott discovers E.T. is an amphibian.

Spielberg has made two small edits, too: The shotguns federal agents trained on Elliott at the film’s climax have been replaced by walkie-talkies (a knee-jerk reaction to the ongoing dilemma of kids and guns) and, for more understandable reasons, the object of admonishing by Elliott’s mom (Dee Wallace) on Halloween (“You are not going out as terrorists!”) has been replaced with “hippies.”

Essentially, though, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” is just the way you remember it: one of the most affecting and insightful movies about childhood ever made.

In interviews, Spielberg has often said “E.T.” is his most personal film, and that he was surprised by the resounding success the film enjoyed in the summer of 1982.

Made on a modest budget ($10 million), the movie was supposed to mark Spielberg’s breather from popcorn blockbusters like “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Instead, it became a pop culture phenomenon, grossing $700 million worldwide and joining the pantheon of timeless children’s fables.

Timeless also describes the film’s great emotional power, which remains undiminished.

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” may be, as cynics like to point out, nothing more than a simple boy-and-his-dog tale.

But the film’s ability to turn viewers into a sobbing, blubbering mess has less to do with manipulative tricks and more with the way it recreates that magical, insular view of the world children share as they are growing up, a world that couldn’t be more removed from the one grown-ups inhabit.

Spielberg reinforced that theme by shooting most of the film from low angles, mirroring a child’s point of view, and keeping most of the adult characters’ faces hidden until the last 30 minutes.

He also imbued the movie with a child’s persuasive hopefulness and innocence, and the film’s greatest accomplishment is letting you in on that bliss again, if only for the span of two hours.

When Elliott takes flight in the nighttime sky on his bike, it’s impossible not to soar right along with him.