Christmas Classic – Home Alone
Can you believe that Home Alone is 25 years old this year? I was too young to remember this film coming out but I have seen it many times since then and keep going back to it. I’m definitely not alone in that but why is that? There are plenty of Christmas films that come and go without lasting in the memories of those who watch them so what makes Home Alone one of the films that becomes mandatory viewing at Christmas?
For me it succeeds on so many levels and has enough depth to make it worth revisiting. John Hughes was a proven writer by that point with such classics like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains and Automobiles under his belt. There are many more but for me those are among the best of his output. Not everything he wrote was any good and there was definitely a period where he was writing really terrible films. I’m looking at you Home Alone 3 and Flubber.
John Hughes always excelled in writing relatable and believable characters who were easy to get behind. His dialogue -for the most part- sounded like things that real people would say and he had a talent for juggling drama and comedy to the point where it was easy to take films his films seriously while still having a lot of fun with them.
Home Alone is a classic example of this as the script jumps from heartwarming drama to comedy without missing a beat. It all feels natural and the world his characters inhabit is a lot of fun to be in. Maybe not for the character but certainly the audience can enjoy the chaos that ensues.
The story is really simple and comes from a really relatable place. When we are introduced to the McCallister family the night before they leave to enjoy Christmas in Paris. The particulars of where they’re going and why they’re going there aren’t really important but the takeaway from the buildup is that it’s a big family and the atmosphere is a chaotic one. It’s pretty much exactly what happens when young kids, older kids and adults are thrust together while trying to organise something big. Friction is in the air and things are bound to erupt eventually.
I like how this opening is put together with the audience seeing much of this from the perspective of one of the criminals Harry (Joe Pesci). He is dressed as a cop to find out information about their Christmas plans so he can later come back and rob the place. Again this isn’t important and the film doesn’t give this away immediately. As far as we know he’s a police officer and is there for genuine reasons.
It isn’t entirely from his perspective with much of the focus going to Kevin (Macaulay Culcin) who of course serves as the protagonist. He’s 8 years old and wandering around asking for help packing his suitcase. It’s important that he is established as an innocent and helpless figure who absolutely shouldn’t be left on his own. References are made to how incapable he is of doing anything for himself but it never lays the whole thing on too think. It just comes across as standard family squabbling and feels natural enough that the current discussions are nothing new for this family.
The characters all appear memorable in these scenes but in different degrees. For me the most prominent characters are Buzz (Devin Ratray) -who always reminded me of Biff from the Back to the Future trilogy, Uncle Frank (Gerry Bamman), Peter (John Heard) and Kate McCallister (Catherine O’Hara). The family are simply too large for anyone to really stand out. Fuller (Kieran Culkin) sticks in the mind because of the references to wetting the bed whenever he consumes fluids but that’s about the extent of his characterisation. It is amusing to see him own the fact that he’s a bedwetter but it’s also really creepy to see that he enjoys that it’s going to happen. What a deranged child.
Of course the plot really begins when Kevin finds himself left at home all by himself. The mechanics of how this happens actually make a lot of sense. There’s a power cut during the night that makes the entire family sleep through their alarms so they are running late for the airport. The rushing around to get everything ready coupled with the fact that Kevin was exiled to the third floor for causing trouble the night before means that it’s easy for him to be left out in the chaos. A curious and annoying neighbour child paying an early morning visit messes with the headcount so they are unaware that anyone has been left behind until they are already in the air. It’s a clever way to make leaving Kevin behind something that the audience can understand without having the parents seem monstrously neglectful. I imagine the outlook on the situation would be a lot different today but in 1990 it probably seemed fine.
As soon as the mistake has been realised it becomes a frantic rush to get home before something horrible happens to Kevin. Simply getting back home isn’t an easy task as the time of year is a significant obstacle. Literally every flight leading back to where they started is full with the first available one being a couple of days away. Kate McCallister is incredibly desperate to the point where she begs and pleads with other passengers to give up their place on the flights and offers to exchange everything she has on her just for the chance to get home to her son. Kate’s devotion to her family is something that definitely can’t be disputed as she is willing to part with every possession she has to make it back. Catherine O’Hara’s performance solidifies that devotion as the desperation is evident in her voice. It’s impressive how John Hughes’ script manages to make the situation both hilarious and tragic at the same time. It’s one of those “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” situations and watching the characters react to this is always fun to see.
Interestingly, Peter is much more practical than she is by suggesting that they go to their destination and use the resources available there to come up with a better plan. Some people have said to me that he doesn’t seem to care but I think it’s just the opposite. Kate’s reaction comes from a place of emotion whereas Peter operates on a more rational level. It could be argued that this is playing up to gender stereotypes and it’s hard to disagree with that but this side of the story definitely belongs to Kate who appears more prominently where Peter and the rest of the family largely disappear. Kate’s reaction also feels genuine that the whole idea of gender roles never really entered my mind. She’s a mother who is worried about her son, who can disagree with that? I certainly can’t.
The resolution of her story when she is offered a lift -or ride for you Americans out there- by a traveling Polka band led by Gus (the ever hilarious John Candy) who bring her with them in their van. John Candy brings his unique brand of comedy to the proceeding with his really serious delivery of lines that are just hilarious. The whole trip is a riot with Kate’s obvious discomfort only adding to the beauty of this. A particular highlight is a discussion she has with Gus where he relates the story of leaving his kid in a funeral parlour which is just too horrifying for words. He talks as if it’s no big deal but the facts of the situation are hilariously horrific. So much so that Kate basically tells him to shut up. It’s a really awkwardly funny scene that sums up the comedy through tragedy theme of the film.
Kate’s role is only a small part of the film as it’s all about Kevin and how he reacts to being home alone. Initially, he accepts being left alone because he had wished for his family to disappear the night before and, being an 8 year old, actually believes that his wish had been granted by some higher power. It’s a clever way for him to not be terrified by the situation right away and keep the film as light hearted as it can be.
He goes through a predictable yet effective emotional arc as he starts off glad that he’s alone before moving onto missing his family and finally begging for them to come back. He learns a powerful lesson about how important his family are to him when they aren’t around to support him. Macaulay Culkin was at one time a bit of a prodigy when it comes to acting and this film is a good example of why. He’s consistently likable and believable throughout while providing enough depth to his performance to show how imperfect he is. He simply feels like a real 8 year old boy and reacts in a way that people can understand when placed in this unique situation.
The whole thing is a learning experience for him as he has to deal with the fact that he is on his own and figure out what adults do to keep themselves alive every day. He never quite gets to the point of attempting to cook food that doesn’t go in the microwave but the way he learns how to survive is really impressive.
Kevin proves to be a very resourceful child as he manages to go shopping, wash clothes and fend off a pair of bloodthirsty criminals. You know, normal day to day stuff. I’ll come to the criminal part a but later but there are other less brutally hilarious yet relevant things to talk about first.
The real heart of the film comes from Kevin’s brief interactions with Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom). On the surface he’s quite a scary looking guy to an 8 year old and having him mostly shot from Kevin’s perspective helps the audience see him how Kevin sees him. Early in the film Buzz tells a story about him murdering his family that is clearly untrue because it’s a bunch of kids gossiping about it. I’m sure many of us had someone live near us who had a rumour or two surrounding them. Kevin’s fear of this man is entirely down to that story but I imagine that his intimidating look contributes heavily to that.
When Kevin actually speaks to him he finds that Old Man Marley isn’t so bad. There’s a similar moment when he ventures into his basement and overcomes his irrational fear of the furnace. Overcoming his fear of Old Man Marley is a similar sort of idea. Kevin learns that confronting what scares you makes it less scary.
Their discussions are nicely emotionally loaded as they both share the problem of having absent families. Kevin’s predicament is accidental where Old Man Marley’s situation is something he could actively do something about. At its core the problem is the same and Kevin comes from feeling that he made his family disappear and wishing he could take it back where Marley destroyed his relationship with his son and wishes he could take it back for the sake of his granddaughter. Kevin’s innocent outlook helps Marley see that repairing the rift could be as simple as making a phone call and trying to sort the whole thing out. It’s a nice scene between the two of them and Marley’s reunion with his family at the end of the film is incredibly touching.
I haven’t said much about the comedic aspects of the film but there are many gags that just work. Kevin walking home triumphantly from his first shopping trip only to have the bags burst and all of his purchases strewn over the pavement gets me every time. Another joke that I appreciate is when he takes a toothbrush to the counter of a shop and asks if it’s approved by the American Dental Association. Of course the store clerk has absolutely no idea but her commitment to customer service is tested when Kevin asks if she could find out. As someone who used to work in retail that’s not a situation you want to be in.
Another classic joke is the use of the fictitious film Angels with Filthy Souls. We only see one scene from this film but it is used on several occasions to fill in appropriate dialogue on a conversation. It’s used when paying for a pizza and discouraging the Wet Bandits from coming into the house. It’s hilarious when it happens as the responses fit in perfectly though I have to question why the pizza delivery guy hears gunshots and doesn’t mention it to anyone. It seems like something you’d bring up when getting back. There’s also a nice recurring gag where a statue at the front of the McCallister house gets knocked over by nearly every vehicle pulls up
Kevin’s defense of his home against the Wet Bandits is pretty much the definition of overkill. I’m not going to go into an in depth analysis of the injuries inflicted on these tenacious burglars as better people than me have already done so. You can find my personal favourites here and here.
Since there’s no need for me to go into it my discussion of this part of the film will be brief. It’s really entertaining to watch and it’s nice that the whole film doesn’t feel like waiting for this to kick off. Even if the attempted burglary wasn’t in the film then it would still have been an engaging story about a young child forced to grow up really quickly.
These scenes show Kevin to be a really sadistic individual as many of the traps he sets are definitely overkill. It’s no wonder the Wet Bandits want to murder him but I have to wonder why they don’t just give up and go home. I know that if I encountered a staircase covered in tar I would most likely call it a day and live with what I’d already stolen. The above material will show how fatal his traps really are but it is funny to see the constant brutal escalation as well as having Joe Pesci put across frustration without actually swearing. Imagine telling Joe Pesci that he can’t swear in a film.
Home Alone wraps up as you would pretty much expect it to. Kevin wakes up to find his family have returned with his mother having endured the trip with the Polka band as well as the rest of them arriving moments later. It’s amusing that had Kate waited she would have reached home at exactly the same time.
I’ll leave this with a couple of things about the ending that have always bugged me. Firstly Kevin manages to remove all evidence of the traps that he set as well as the damage that was caused to the house as a result of the attempted burglary. Certainly the bottom floor of the house is immaculately clean. How on Earth did he manage to do that in one night? Granted we don’t see the rest of the house but I have to assume he managed to get rid of the tar somehow as well as taking down the rest of the traps. He definitely doesn’t fix Buzz’ room as he gets yelled at for leaving it in a mess.
Another thing that confuses me is how Kevin’s family never find out about him besting the robbers. He hides from the police when they are arrested and takes no credit for the part he played in apprehending them. Old Man Marley doesn’t mention it after rescuing Kevin either so surely someone is bound to know about it.
As a last point, this doesn’t apply to the ending but the film as a whole. Kevin leaves his house several times over the course of the film and not once does he ever lock the door. He comes and goes without using a key and doesn’t even lock it when the Wet Bandits come to rob the place. It’s no wonder the neighbourhood is a perfect score for them.