At first glance, it appears that the Home Alone movies are brainless slapstick intended for those with minds of 8-year olds. That’s true of Home Alone 2 and I’d bet money that it’s true of Home Alone 3 (opening soon). But Home Alone actually has a lot going for it, and the cartoon slapstick doesn’t get in the way.
The McAlisters, all 15 of them, are going to France for the holidays. Four adults and eleven kids are spending the night together before heading to the airport en masse. The littlest kid, Kevin, is the victim of the older kids’ cruelty. Kevin’s patience runs out when he learns that his plain-cheese pizza has already been eaten, and he’s going to have to starve. He attacks his big bully brother Buzz, who had been teasing him. The fight disrupts the already-chaotic dinner, spilling milk and soft drinks all over the table, a few cousins, and an uncle.
The knee-jerk reaction is for everyone to blame Kevin. Nobody came to his rescue when he was being teased, but they all point their fingers when he fights back. The ultimate punishment comes from mom (Catherine O’Hara) who sends him up to the spare bedroom in the attic for the night. On his way up the stairs, he tells her that “families suck” and that he hopes never to see any of his family again.
That night the power goes out, knocking out the alarm clocks, so the McAlisters wake up in a big hurry to get to the airport. In a surprisingly plausible setup, Kevin is mistakenly accounted for, and the family heads off without him.
It’s interesting that, in a subtle way, his parents never noticed him missing because of their deliberate desire to separate themselves from their children. First they delegate the headcount to an older sibling, and second, they put all the kids in coach while they fly first class. They’re two-thirds of the way across the Atlantic before they realize they are missing a child.
Meanwhile, Kevin believes that somehow his wish has come true. He’s finally rid of his family! Life is a dream come true. He can jump on the beds, watch R-rated movies, eat gobs of ice cream and potato chips, and dig through his big brother’s secret box.
Slowly, the novelty wears off and he settles into the mundane. He grooms himself, he does the laundry, he goes shopping (“I bought some milk, eggs, and fabric softener”). He also starts to miss his family, not just for their company, but for the security they bring. The furnace in the basement is a scary monster, the old man next door is a snow-shovel murderer, and two crooks are trying to break into his house.
Macaulay Culkin is cute but he isn’t much of an actor. Still, we can see that Kevin’s character grows, thanks to some good direction and editing. For example, acting has little to do with the emotional impact of the scene where Kevin searches out a seasonal Santa at night, just as “Santa” is getting in his car. Kevin asks the man to pass on his request — he wants his family back — to the real Santa.
He learned how to deal with the furnace. You turn on the lights and it’s not so scary anymore. He goes to a church one evening and there he sees the snow-shovel murderer, who actually turns out to be a nice man. They talk about their fears and Kevin learns that age alone does not make you less afraid. Finally, in the last 20 minutes, Kevin confronts his last fear — the bandits, head on (literally). This last act is full of violent comedic slapstick, and after the movie’s genuine dramatic setup, it is dessert. It’s a lot of fun, and it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the movie.
On the whole, Home Alone is a great holiday movie. John Williams’ original score has the sound and feel of holiday music without the disadvantage of being overplayed at the malls, and the Christmas setting can put you in the mood for those family gatherings. But it does have its flaws.
The smallest problem is that Culkin doesn’t act very well. As I said before, he is cute, but repeated viewings reveal more about how Columbus covered himself than about Culkin’s insight into his character. The biggest problem is that during the cartoony coda, the villains threaten Kevin’s life about five times. Instead of “I’m gonna get that kid” they say “I’m gonna kill that kid.” Some might argue that the tone is the same, but I strongly disagree. Mixing comedy with specific and viable threats of murder is a sociopathic faux-pas.
I’ll probably never see Home Alone 3, and I wish I had skipped Home Alone 2, but I do enjoy Home Alone almost every year. Don’t let your impressions of the others detract from the original, which has much more to offer than cartoon slapstick.