In Defense of Home Alone
On the occasion of its induction into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry (and the fact we're in the middle of the Christmas season), it seems a perfect time to look back at Chris Columbus' Home Alone, a family comedy that spawned countless imitators and has been both revered as a Christmas classic and maligned for its wide-ranging impact on children's entertainment throughout the ensuing decade and beyond.
Released in 1990, Home Alone would come to define family movies throughout the 90s, its brand of violent slapstick becoming the standard sense of humor from Dennis the Menace to 101 Dalmatians, as young tykes (or pups) wreak violence havoc amongst villainous adults. That violence has certainly caused its share of controversy in the years sense, but let's take a look specifically at the original Home Alone. It was the box office giant of the year, edging out Ghost domestically to take home the crown as the highest grossing film of 1990 (Ghost would ultimately edge it out worldwide), and briefly entering the list of the 10 highest grossing films of all time. It was #1 at the box office for 12 consecutive weekends; a feat only managed by one other film - Titanic. In fact, the film was such an unexpected hit, that a sequel was almost immediately rushed into production to be released in 1992
The countless imitators make it easy to discount Home Alone. But there remains something uniquely charming about this holiday perennial, and I think much of that is owed to John Hughes, whose hits Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club has marked him as one of the preeminent cinematic chroniclers of Gen-X angst, and for many millennials, Home Alone would be their first introduction to Hughes. I think what makes the film so successful is how Hughes manages to tap into a very primal childhood fear - being left home alone. It's a simple but potent premise, and I can't say if it's because of this film or if its something this film captured, but I feel like the thought of how one would defend oneself from potential burglars is a common fear amongst children. Macaulay Culkin's Kevin is essentially living out a mix of childhood fears and fantasies - being left alone and having to fend off a couple of bumbling bandits by dishing out painful justice on his home turf.
That violence has certainly been subject of criticism against the film for years, but I've always seen it as a kind of live action Looney Toons short. Is it an essentially conservative view of justice? Perhaps - it justifies the violent retribution meted out to its antagonists because they are "bad," therefore absolving the audience of laughing at their misfortune. It's something I wrestled with as a child seeing it for the first time - why were people laughing at these men getting hurt? But the cartoonish violence is part of a grand tradition of slapstick - this is Three Stooges-level stuff; lowbrow, sure, but with a bit more heart. Subsequent sequels (and imitators) would certainly be crueler and more mean spirited, but there is an earnestness to Home Alone that sets it apart. Hughes and Columbus manage to balance sincerity with juvenile humor in a way that never feels as maudlin as it might have, thanks in large part to its holiday setting. The now legendary John Williams score helps the film capture a certain holiday magic that has made it a Christmas perennial for many - it's a film that just seems to perfectly capture the nostalgic beauty of the holiday season and its cornerstone of family. Since the entire premise is about a young child being left home alone by his parents, the holiday setting makes their absence all the more keenly felt.
Audience mileage continues to vary, of course. Columbus' directorial track record has been spotty, but Home Alone has gathered an enduring following, and it's not difficult to see why. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern's villainous crooks are such wonderful archetypes, and they play their parts with an infectious relish. John Candy's brief role as the "Polka King of the Midwest" is a delight. Catherine O'Hara gets to exercise her top notch comedic chops while still playing it mostly straight as Mom. Roberts Blossom tugs heartstrings as Old Man Marley, the misunderstood next door neighbor (imagine a family film today having the temerity to have a pause in the action as quiet and soulful as his extended scene in the church with Kevin). And of course there's Culkin in his star making performance as Kevin - his feisty quips and one-liners feeling at once over-the-top (does any kid ever really talk like this?) and like a kid's inner dialogue come to life. I think that's the key to Home Alone - its childhood wish fulfillment. What kid hasn't gotten annoyed at their parents, or had enough of fighting with their siblings? The world of Home Alone is filled with incompetent adults, some helpful, some clueless, others malign (even the police are terrible at their jobs - John Hughes really said ACAB long before it was popular), and what child hasn't wished they could stand up for themselves the way Kevin does? It's truly a child's world, and it allows Kevin to reclaim his agency, even as he realizes that he truly does love and need his family, he at least gets to discover his own strength. And while not all of its gags land (the talking furnace seems cheesy now, but even it manages to tap into that innate childhood fear of basements and their frightening unknown noises), Hughes' nearly unparalleled ability to see the world through the eyes of a child is why Home Alone remains so indelible. And who could forget Angels With Filthy Souls, the fake film noir that Kevin watches throughout the movie, whose recreation of 1940s noir aesthetics was so convincing that people still think it's a real movie?
Its sequel managed to recapture some of the magic, basically remaking the film and transplanting it to a new location, but the rest of its sequels (right up to 2021's Home Sweet Home Alone) have failed to capture even a glimmer of its charm - the same goes for its myriad imitators released throughout the 1990s and beyond. I think that largely speaks to Hughes' magic touch, but also to the fact that it wasn't just the slapstick violence that drew people to Home Alone. People aren't watching this just to see bad guys get beaten up at the hands of a precocious child. They're here to feel that "gingerbread feeling" we hear about in John Williams' Oscar-nominated theme song. Home Alone, strangely, feels like home - but it isn't simply blind nostalgia that leads us to revisit it year after year. It's because this film truly captures something enduring about what it's like to be a kid, and it continues to speak to that child in all of us, proving you're never too old to miss your mom, or laugh at a grown man getting hit in the balls.