Home Alone (1990)
Written by John Hughes
Directed by Chris Columbus
Home Alone came about when John Hughes was making a checklist for an upcoming family trip and thought for a moment what would happen if he forgot his kids, who weren’t on that list. After making some notes about what antics the child could get into, he realized that a good source of conflict and fear for a child would-be robbers. Some unwanted intruders coming into the safety of a child’s home would be a pretty harrowing thing, and thus Home Alone was born. Director Chris Columbus came on board and did a quick rewrite, weaving in the emotional beats that unite Kevin and his neighbor.
Home Alone is the story of young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), an 8-year-old who has been forgotten amongst the swarm of older siblings and now the houseguests who are all preparing for a trip to visit more family in Paris for Christmas. The night before they depart, Kevin has an outburst, pushed too far by his bullying older brother Buzz and wishes his family would disappear. A coincidental power outage makes the McCallisters and company late for their pick up to the airport the next morning, and in a rush, they forget Kevin. Kevin wakes up believing he’s wished them all away and delights in his newfound freedom. But, when he discovers a duo of robbers (Joe Pesci & Daniel Stern) are planning to break into his home, things suddenly don’t seem so fun. Meanwhile, Kate (Catherine O’Hara), Kevin’s mom, suddenly realizes the mistake and becomes desperate to make the journey back to ensure her child is safe.
This is not a film masterpiece, but it has elements that endure thirty years later. I argue that the plot of Kevin combatting the burglars is not what makes people return to this film again and again. It was undoubtedly the picture’s selling point in 1990, but there’s something else more endearing here. Kevin’s journey of learning to be independent and not fear things in his world is the more important thematic element. That operates alongside the arc his mother goes through on her journey back to her son.
The two of them have a very intense moment in the first act that initiating moment where Kevin argues that he hates his family and wishes they would go away forever. Kevin doesn’t appreciate what he has, but neither does his mom; she’s so busy with the minutiae of a big trip across the Atlantic that she forgets to check in on her kids and make sure they are okay. Kevin has genuine concerns about what is happening around him, and he’s ignored or mocked. The way these two realize what they were overlooking or allowing to get inbetween them and then push past all the noise is the film’s emotional core. That’s what keeps people coming back.
While this is considered the start of a downturn in John Hughes’s work, I don’t think this is a terrible movie. It’s certainly not as good as something like Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, but it does have its own charms. The comedy is definitely aimed at a younger audience with lots of slapstick, but there are some clever little bits and details that I think are still funny as an adult. Macaulay Culkin was a very charismatic actor when he was a little kid, and he can carry the film with help from Catherine O’Hara almost effortlessly.
There are great elements of fantasy fulfillment, with Kevin doing all the things kids wish they could do. He stays up late, eats whatever he wants, and gets to play grown-up. The antics he gets up to with the Wet Bandits are overly cartoony and are the moment where the film aggressively veers into exaggerated territory. What stood out to me so much in this viewing were the elements of family and learning to overcome fears. Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom) is an essential piece of the story who deserved more character development than he got. The little he’s in the story, he can bring out the heart at the core of everything. Unlike its cynical sequel, the first Home Alone movie is still a piece of holiday media that stands up to repeated viewings.