Two orphaned kids Andi (Emma Roberts) and her mechanical whiz of a younger brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin) live in a foster home with a couple of aging wannabe rock stars (Lisa Kudrow Kevin Dillon) who are vehemently anti-pet. Running out of ways to keep their stray pooch Friday hidden in plain sight they stumble on to an abandoned hotel that turns out to be the perfect shelter for Friday – and transform the place into luxury accommodations for all sorts of unwanted pets they spring from the local pound and the streets. But can they stay one step ahead of the law while keeping this United Nations of dogs in line? Human actors don’t have a chance against the gifted assortment of canines. With dogs of every breed from a border collie who loves to herd sheep (don’t ask) to an English bulldog obsessed with chewing stuff the trainers deliver a cast that flawlessly pulls off every dog trick in the book. Fortunately Roberts (Nancy Drew) and Austin are winning and likeable as the two main kids who share a need for family with their four-legged counterparts. Kudrow and Dillon don’t get a whole lot to do in strictly stereotyped roles but Don Cheadle as the kids’ social worker adds a nice touch of dignity and warmth to the story. For his first American feature German director Thor Freudenthal got the supreme challenge: working with kids and animals. Getting this furry menagerie to act on cue could not have been easy but Freundenthal and his talented trainers make it look so. Particularly amusing are the various gadgets and elaborate contraptions Bruce builds to keep the doggies occupied and quiet -- including simulated car windows they can stick their heads out of portable toilets complicated feeding machines and on and on. Just like the current hit Marley & Me it’s a funny and heartwarming family comedy.
Even if the some of the images are redone the story remains true to form--and fits surprisingly well in this savvy 21st century. As it goes an alien botanist visiting Earth to collect some vegetation gets stranded when his space friends have to make a hasty exit before getting caught by the big bad American scientists lead by "Keys" (Peter Coyote known as such because of the keys jangling from his belt). E.T. ends up befriending an 11-year-old boy Elliot (Henry Thomas) and his siblings older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and little sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) and discovers such earthly pleasures as beer TV and Reese's Pieces. Yet as much fun as he's having all E.T. really wants to do is go home and soon it becomes a matter of life or death for the little alien to get there as quickly as he can. Elliot who has now bonded with his new friend tries as hard as he can to help E.T. get home before its too late--and before Keys and his group get hold of him.
Seeing the young actors on the big screen again especially Thomas and Barrymore and knowing how they've grown up makes the film that much more fun to watch. When the film came out in 1982 Thomas was a true find. His Elliot was full of energy and had a fresh unassuming quality which inspired many young actors after him (i.e. Haley Joel Osment). Interestingly in his adult career Thomas has laid low with subdued roles in such fare as the HBO movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial. Although he is a talented indie actor he has veered away from that excitable little boy we remember. Of course we all know how Ms. Barrymore turned out becoming one of Hollywood's leading actresses--but as Gertie Barrymore was unbelievably adorable with just a hint of how precocious she actually was. The rest of the cast did their jobs just as admirably especially Dee Wallace Stone as Elliot's mom who as a single mom wounded by a divorce still managed to make dinner wipe tears and understand how her son could become attached to an alien.
Why mess with a classic? Well if you're a perfectionist like director Steven Spielberg you want to make the 20th anniversary of one of your most beloved films to be the best that it can be. Honestly when watching the film again it's hard to pinpoint where the changes were made since they blend seamlessly with the rest of the film. Apparently 140 shots were reworked E.T. got a more friendly makeover and a few never-before-seen scenes were added in (like the great scene where E.T. falls into a bathtub of water). True E.T. looks even more lifelike and you can tell the spaceship had a few more bells and whistles on it but it doesn't really matter. The film is a pure gem proving once again what an incredible visionary Spielberg truly is.