Every generation of seems to have a holiday movie that resonates with them more than others. For a lot of baby boomers, it was How the Grinch Stole Christmas? (1966), and the generation before that, it was Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Us Generation X’ers who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s have a whole wealth of holiday specials that meant a lot to our nostalgia for the holidays. But, if there was one that stood taller than the rest in our collective memories, it was the Chris Columbus directed blockbuster Home Alone (1990). Now approaching it’s 30th anniversary, Home Alone was a phenomenon upon it’s initial release. It rode it’s timely holiday season release to record breaking success, and even to this day, it still has the highest box office gross for a comedy when adjusted for inflation. But it wasn’t just the holidays and the humor that carried the movie, and the real factor was surprising to most. The key to Home Alone’s success remarkably came in the form of it’s then 8 year old star, Macaulay Culkin. Culkin, who had only appeared in a handful of films before hand, was suddenly the most famous child star in the world thanks to this movie, achieving a level of fame in Hollywood for a child actor unseen since the days of Shirley Temple. He represented a new generation of film goers who were going to make a big impact on cinema in the decades ahead, and the fact that many of us who were children at this time saw one of our own commanding the screen as well as he did in Home Alone really solidifies why we hold this movie up so much as a part of our holiday tradition. But, it is interesting to see how the movie continues to resonate as a holiday film, given the fact that the movie isn’t necessarily about the holiday itself.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie is unmistakably a Christmas movie. In fact, it is almost drenched in the holidays. You’d have to look at something like It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) or the fore-mentioned Miracle on 34th Street to find another film with so much of Christmas infused into it’s DNA. But, that’s an aesthetic part of the movie. The basic premise of the film itself honestly didn’t need Christmas to work. The story of a child accidentally left home alone by his family having to fend off home invaders could have easily been set at any time of the year. A summer vacation setting would have made just as much sense in this case. But, no doubt director Chris Columbus and writer John Hughes picked the holiday season because it provided a more atmospheric tone to the movie. It’s one thing for a child to be left home alone; it’s another for it to happen around Christmastime. Christmas is a holiday all about getting together with one’s family and enjoying the festivities together. What happens when that’s all taken away. The isolation of having no one around to enjoy Christmas with weighs heavy over the film, and gives it a poignancy that it might not have otherwise had in any other setting. That being said, the movie probably could have worked well enough even without the holiday itself. It’s far more about how Macaulay Culkin’s character, Kevin McCallister deals with the dilemma of keeping his home safe when he has no one else around him to rely upon for safety. As a result, we see the characters ingenuity and the real reason audiences continue to be entertained by the movie after so many years. The movie shifts suddenly in it’s final act into a screwball comedy on the level of something we’d see from the Three Stooges, and the results are pretty wild.
But it should be noted that the movie is never meant to invoke a holiday spirit or to solely illicit laughter from it’s audience. Though on the surface it may seem like a farcical comedy, but underneath, there is something deeper. Home Alone is in essence a coming of age story, showing the growth and maturity of Kevin McCallister over the course of the few days he’s left by himself. John Hughes, who had spent much of the 80’s exploring the highs and lows of the average American teenage life in films like The Breakfast Club (1984) and Sixteen Candles (1987), went even further back into pre-adolescence when exploring the character of Kevin McCallister. It’s interesting to note that when we first meet Kevin in the movie, he’s kind of rotten kid. He’s disrespectful, bratty, and unsympathetic. Combine this with the fact that he’s from an upper class household and Kevin represents every spoiled bourgeois American kid who you’ve no doubt seen throwing a tantrum every time they receive even the slightest rejection from their mother or father. There’s even a point when he calls his mother an idiot to her face, something that I would have been severely reprimanded for if I said that to my mom. And at first, when he finds that his whole family has left for their Paris bound Christmas vacation without him, he initially finds it liberating; immediately wrecking havoc throughout the house, and as he puts it, “watching trash and eating garbage.” But as the movie rolls on, Kevin finds that isolation is not exactly as fun as he hoped it would be, and even begins to realize that a part of his loneliness is of his own making. Through this, John Hughes gives Kevin a redemptive arc that helps to carry the film’s message of compassion. Kevin, who started off the movie as a selfish brat, by the end has become more self-reliant as well as more considerate of the feelings of other people.
This message really becomes clearer beyond his character arc, as Kevin’s dilemma begins to affect those around him. In particular, there is a beautifully told parallel story-line being told with Kevin’s mother Kate (played by an unforgettable Cathrine O’Hara). Kate’s trek back to her son is just as harrowing as what’s going on with Kevin, because we really feel the pain that she is going through not knowing what’s going on with Kevin back home. I find it funny looking back on this movie now in an era when everybody has a cell phone, and how so much of this would be solved today in an instant with a phone call or text message. Still, even watching this movie almost 30 years later, Kate’s story-line still resonates, and I honestly think that Cathrine O’Hara doesn’t get enough credit for her performance here. The normally comedic actress does have her wacky moments here and there (yelling at the incompetent flight desk representatives for one), but her moments of desperation and hopelessness do feel genuine as well. There’s a wonderful scene late in the movie where she wonders if she is a terrible mother for leaving her child alone, while hitching a ride with a polka band in a U-Haul truck (lead by another comedy legend, John Candy), and it’s a honestly portrayed moment that shows the despair of a character who believes she has failed in her duty as a mother, not realizing that her desperate situation proves exactly the opposite. Kate indeed becomes the movie’s beating heart, and it’s pleasing to see so much time devoted to her character as well. Likewise, there is another wonderful arc explored with the character of Old Man Marley (played by Robert Blossom). Kevin’s fearsome looking next door neighbor turns out to be a decent, caring person by the end, giving Kevin another opportunity to open up to others as a part of his character development. In Marley, Kevin recognizes some who like him has pushed people away and it has left him isolated as well, and by recognizing this and encouraging the old man to reconnect with his own family, Kevin likewise recognizes what he must do for himself. So, while there is a lot of shenanigans that go on throughout the course of the movie, it still never forgets that the characters involved are real people who evolve with their story.
Of course, the slapstick is a big part of the movie’s continued entertainment value, and it particularly works because of how on board the actors are to making it as funny as possible. Working very much against type, we find Joe Pesci cast as one of the cat burglars hoping to rob the McCallister home in which Kevin is still present. It should be noted that Pesci appeared in the Scorsese flick Goodfellas (1990) in the same year that he appeared in this movie, a role that would ultimately earn him an Academy Award. To see him go from that to something as screwball as Home Alone really shows how much range he has as an actor. Daniel Stern’s performance as the other cat burglar, Marv, is more logically placed, and Stern does indeed play up the Stooge like aspect of the character very well. One of the biggest laughs in the movie comes from the scream that Marv belts out once he has a tarantula placed on his face. Another reason why the comedy works is because Pesci and Stern have excellent chemistry, and their characters work so well in conflict with Culkin’s smartallecky Kevin. Indeed, I think why so many fans of the film from my generation love this film so much is because we saw a child like us making buffons out of these adults. Of course, a real life scenario like this would have a much darker outcome, but the movie never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. Indeed, we will always enjoy seeing two incompetent criminals get pelted in the face with paint cans. Some of the traps that Kevin sets up in particular are so wildly ridiculous that they defy logic, like Pesci’s Harry getting the top of his head blasted with a blow torch. At the same time, it’s not like this slapstick comes out of nowhere in the final act though. There are sprinkles of what’s to come throughout the movie, like the family’s mad scramble to get ready for their trip after sleeping in, or Kevin’s ridiculous indoor sledding down a staircase. My favorite piece of comedy though is the film noir parody that Kevin watches while eating ice cream. Doing a hilarious send up of James Cagney gangster flicks in the middle of this family oriented Christmas flick is something that I’ve grown to appreciate more as I’ve expanded my knowledge of film history, and it’s something that helps to make this movie a delight to watch still.
It is also interesting how the movie not only acts as a quintessential holiday film, but it has also gone on to leave it’s mark as a part of people’s traditions for the holidays. For one thing, I think that more than any other movie of it’s generation, it has brought awareness to all these old Christmas standards from generations for younger audiences. The movie is full of many songs that otherwise might not have resonated with Genration X or millennials beyond their initial years. These are songs that are now standards like Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” Mel Torme’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or The Drifter’s rendition of “White Christmas.” The movie’s soundtrack is basically a greatest hits album of all the Christmas songs that our parents grew up listening to, which is another great way the movie manages to bring multiple generations of audience members together as a part of the experience. But the movie isn’t just blessed with a varied playlist of holiday standards. Somehow, Chris Columbus managed to land the legendary John Williams to write an original score. And for a movie as simple and small in scope as Home Alone is, it is amazing how much bigger it feels with a Williams score behind it. Infusing more of a Christmas tone than anything else he has ever written, Williams probably is the one most responsible for making this an unmistakable holiday film. This includes tones of memorable original pieces, like the mad-cap, sleigh bell infused melody that plays during the McCallister family’s rush to the airport, or the quiet grace of the original tune “Somewhere in my Memory,” that plays during the more heartwarming moments. I don’t think the final shot of the movie with Old Man Marley reunited with his family would have had the same resonance without Williams amazing score in that moment. Honestly, we have Home Alone to thank for the many different melodies that flood our airwaves during the month of December, both good and bad, and it all does helps to elevate the atmosphere of the movie itself. As a result you can see why the filmmakers could not choose any other time but Christmas to set their movie in.
Home Alone is one of those movies that so perfectly contains it’s concept within it’s storyline, and it feels like there is no other way to improve upon it. Sadly, the filmmakers were saddled with the responsibility of having to make a sequel to Home Alone only a couple short years later due to how much money it made for studio 20th Century Fox. Long before The Hangover movies set a new standard for uninspired sequelizing of a hit comedy, Home Alone tried desperately to recapture the same lightning in a bottle with another movie but only this time in a new location; New York City in this case. Home Alone 2: Escape from New York (1992) does try, and is not without its moments, but it’s clear that Columbus and Hughes were really stretching the premise thin. And the main reason why the sequel doesn’t work as well is because it’s missing that crucial element that made the original so memorable; Kevin’s character arc. He’s already grown as a character, so by the time we see him again, he’s already gained his maturity. How do you resolve this in order to make a sequel; you regress the character and make him fall back into his bad habits, thereby undoing all the work of the original movie. It’s an unfortunately negative result that removes the emotional heart of the movie, resulting in a half-hearted “here we go again” feel to the movie. The relationship between Kevin and his mom is also unfortunately reduced as well. Even still, the movie has it’s fans, and I do enjoy some of the best parts of the movie, like another film noir parody as well as the addition of Tim Curry to the cast as a diabolical hotel manager. But what the sequel illustrates more than anything else was just how important that underlying heart was to making the original movie work as well as it did.
The legacy that Home Alone has left behind is one that is inexorably linked now to the holidays. Children who first experienced the movie in its initial release are all adults now with children of their own, and I’m sure that they’ll no doubt be sharing the movie with them this time of year. Disney is even now reviving the property as a possible reboot for their Disney+ service, of which the original films are already available on. It’s easy to see why the movie became an instant hit, but I think the magnitude may have been the most unexpected part of all. It may have been too much for Macaulay Culkin in those hectic few years after Home Alone hit theaters, putting him at the center of Hollywood spotlight for most of his formative years. After being hounded by the industry for some time, Culkin retreated into a quieter life, but has more recently emerged on social media carrying around a sense of humor with the role that made him famous. He even jokingly pondered what a grown up Kevin McCallister would be like in a charming commercial for Google. Sure, time changes perception, and Home Alone is not without it’s quaintness due to the passage of time. But over the years, it has also gained something for its audience that all the best holiday classics have managed to do, which is to present a warm sense of nostalgia. My generation looks fondly back on Home Alone and we have grown to appreciate it more now that we have become grown ups ourselves. Sure, we all like to be a smart ass kid like Kevin McCallister, but over time we find ourselves also wanting to do whatever we can to be there for our loved ones for the holidays. In the end, the movie shows us that Holiday season is all about the importance of family and that being alone for Christmas is not the ideal situation. Togetherness is key, and Home Alone, in its own silly way, delivers that message beautifully. So, Merry Christmas, you filthy animal.