My personal favorite film of 1990 was Home Alone. It is one of the quintessential holiday must-watch rituals, right up there with The Grinch and It’s A Wonderful Life (both featured in homage in this film) and the claymation reindeer movie that’s on TV every year. I revisited this festive classic to determine if Home Alone is still dope.
One can’t talk about the 90s without mentioning Home Alone’s young protagonist, played by Macaulay Culkin. The most famous child star of his era, Mac joined the ranks of the Hollywood elite, becoming the most bankable child star of all time. Home Alone was an unexpected box office record-breaker that launched Macaulay’s career into the stratosphere, spawning a franchise. It isn’t surprising to read that Home Alone was written for Macaulay specifically, the role fits him like a glove. His adorable mug, natural on-screen presence, and innate charisma captured the public imagination while his troubled family life became tabloid fodder that ensured he would remain in headlines for years to come, making Culkin an inescapable pop-culture figure synonymous with lost youth and excess.
Back to the film that made it all possible…
[I vividly remember watching this movie for the first time. It was on Christmas Eve in Puerto Rico, one of the rare times my grandparents went to the cinema. The moment I saw Macaulay, my young little heart never quite beat the same. I had my first official crush and watched this movie all the time. I tuned in to the premiere of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video to see him. And what happened after that is HIStory. More on that some other time. Ah, to be young in the 90s…]
From the opening shot, this film fills you with the holiday fuzzies. A picturesque roomy house embellished with stringed lights and festive yuletide trimmings; inside, eruptions of frenzied chaos and squabbles that ensue when large families reunite.
Enter cherubic Macaulay Culkin, the love of my pre-pubescent life… as the mischevious-but-always-endearing Kevin McCallister. His complaints are fairly typical; he is flustered he isn’t allowed to do what the “big kids” can, needs permission from elders, can’t watch R-rated movies, has to sleep next to his bed-wetting cousin, and is bullied by his relatives. His gripes represent the typical childhood experiences we long to forget, including the usual sibling torments, which include shouldering the blame for their offenses and the older brother who preys upon his naivety by regaling him with horror tales about their elderly neighbor Old Man Marley, who murdered his family with a snow shovel (every town has its mythological monster, real or imagined). After an altercation, Kevin is punished by having to spend the night alone on the third floor. Aggitated, he boldly announces that “families suck” and wishes they would all disappear.
Through a perfect storm (of both the literal and figurative variety), he gets his wish. A series of coincidences leads to Kevin being accidentally left behind by his family as they travel to Paris, leaving a “helpless” 8-year old to his own devices for the holidays. (Family abandonment is a theme in John Hughes films such as 16 Candles, where Molly Ringwald’s fictional family forgets her Sweet 16). In this picture, Hughes asks the question, “If kids really did have all the freedom in the world, how would they choose to live?”
Kevin wastes no time enjoying his new life: Jumping on his parents bed in his shoes, digging through his older brother’s stash of treasures including a BB gun, Playboy magazine, and his life savings; watching R-rated films, eating all the ice cream and cheese pizza he can stomach, and sledding down the staircase. Kevin soon learns (as we all do) that freedom comes with a price tag, and responsibilities set in. Modeling adults, he takes to wearing aftershave, coupon-cutting and grocery shopping, and looking for a toothbrush “approved by the American Dental Association”. Adulthood also means Kevin must face some of his greatest fears, which include laundry trips to the basement, where he must face the dreaded furnace and visits to the “creepy” 3rd floor. Worse yet, he has to protect himself and his house from invaders.
As a child, I loved the bumbling burglars. As an adult, this plot is the film’s weakest point. It feels oddly random and disjointed, almost as if it is a second film altogether spliced into a warm holiday movie. The scenes seem unique in the cultural landscape for the 90s, the slapstick and campy humor feels more like something you’d expect from the Three Stooges era or a cartoon, where the laughs often come at the expense of shocking violence used as punch lines (since the characters live another day). Even their namesake, the Wet Bandits, feels straight out of a comic book or a 1930s screwball comedy. These scenes offer an empowering moment for children, who relish in seeing a kid outsmart adults who have clearly underestimated his ingenuity and fortitude.
Holiday references in this film are plenty; the scenes look like montages from a Norman Rockwell painting. Kevin is well-versed in the holiday ritual; he attends Church, asks Santa Claus for advice, and cuts down his own tree to decorate. The overarching themes seem to be the importance of tradition and ultimately, togetherness and forgiveness. His family is reluctant to enjoy their vacation without him, desperately trying to find a way home. Loneliness eventually sets in when Kevin realizes that what truly makes Christmas a special holiday is those you are able to share it with. Kevin ultimately has to forgive his family for upsetting him and leaving him behind and his mother has to forgive herself for negligence. Kevin’s greatest holiday gift is to pass on advice to Old Man Marley, who must forgive himself and his son for an argument that tore his family apart. The scene between Kevin and Marley is the film’s best, a tender exchange that showcases the often-overlooked wisdom children possess. While adults complicate solutions, children simplify. “Why don’t you just call him? At least you’ll know, then you can stop worrying about it.”
John Williams delivers a knockout score that seamlessly marries these visuals, it’s hard to imagine this film without his festive contributions.
The song “Star of Bethlehem” is a masterpiece.
Where this film really excels is capturing the spirit of the holidays and the magic of childhood. Anything is possible.
Watching Home Alone is like a trip to Disney World – through Kevin, we experience the world through the eyes of a child. Their deepest fears, insecurities, desires, and brilliance. For those of us lucky enough to have happy holiday memories as children, this film brings them all back in a flash.
This movie is most certainly still dope, and still made me cry after all these years.
Rating: 5 Christmas Trees