Home Alone is one of the most iconic Christmas movies of the 1990s. The movie follows Kevin McCallister, a young boy who feels like his parents favor his brother and sisters. As a result, he has not been well-behaved. His family, including with an aunt, uncle, and cousins, plans on spending the holidays in France. However, while en route to Europe, they discover that they have in fact left Kevin at home. Home Alone’s strong writing, exemplary acting, and humor makes this a movie that is sure to be ranked among viewers’ top Christmas films.
The movie features excellent writing by John Hughes. Though some may be skeptical that a family would leave a child behind when travelling internationally, the narrative set-up is actually convincing. On the night before the trip, Kevin misbehaves and lashes out at his parents in front of his relatives. This results in his banishment to the attic. During the night, their area experiences a power outage which disables their alarm clocks. Frenzied, the family rushes to gather their belongings and leave so they do not miss their flight. Kevin’s mom, Kate, asks one of her daughters if everybody has been counted and is in place. She is given an explanation, but does not double check to verify her daughter’s count. This is a lesson to always double check in situations such as these!
Another narrative thread is woven in tandem with Kevin being left at the house. The night before their trip, a man impersonating a police officer inquired about the McCallister’s holiday plans. It turns out he and his accomplice were casing the entire neighborhood and plan to rob the houses whose owners are on vacation. The McCallister house is the crème de la crème and prime target for the kleptomaniacs. They soon discover, however, that the house is not completely vacant and Kevin has become savvy to their nefarious plans.
Home Alone has very natural pacing. If you think the majority of the movie is comprised of Kevin using his household traps to defeat the thieves, then you will be disappointed. Kevin’s interactions with the burglars in his home comprises only the third act. The first two acts are filled with information of Kevin being left behind, with his parents attempting to travel back to the United States, and with Kevin living on his own. This, however, is not a bad thing. It feels convincing. The robbers were going to rob other homes in the neighborhood, and the way they are portrayed in this matter is realistic. It would seem forced if the kleptomaniacs only targeted the McCallister house and it so happens that Kevin was left by his family.
By showing that Kevin is learning about life on his own, the movie exemplifies his well-developed character arc. At the beginning of the movie, he is snooty and disrespectful. Once he realizes that his family left him, he, rather naturally for a child, indulges in junk food and movies. However, he discovers that he needs to buy groceries. He then takes care of errands and beautifying the house for Christmas.
When the film concludes, Kevin has come to learn what a blessing it is to have a family, even if everything is not always copacetic with them. If the film’s pacing would have been different, or if the majority of the movie were the comedic elements of him combating the robbers, these meaningful pacing and tonal elements would have been lost and an important element of Home Alone’s overall charm would not exist. As such, the pacing aids the movie in being a well-rounded film, not a mindless B-level slapstick feature.
One minor negative I had regarding pacing was how quickly Kevin was able to devise and construct the booby traps throughout his house. The night of the robbery attempt, Kevin goes to a Christmas Eve church service, which takes place at night. He knows the robbers will arrive at a specific time, but he does not prepare until after he returns from the service. Doing so only allows a small window of time for him to devise his strategy and gather all the materials necessary for his traps. I may be splitting hairs here, but this was a noticeable element and could have been precluded if Kevin had perhaps started in the afternoon and finished after the church service. Though minor, it did feel like the set-up for the climactic portions of the third act were sadly shoehorned into the final product. I am not saying that they needed to show and spoil the traps beforehand, but simply making it clear that Kevin worked on his defenses earlier in the day would have sufficed.
Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern provide Home Alone’s strongest performances. Culkin’s Kevin, though a somewhat of a brat at first, is charming and quite mature for his age. Despite his immaturity at the film’s onset, he realizes that he cannot merely sit around and consume candy and ice cream all day. Rather he takes part in more mature tasks like laundry and grocery shopping. The ease at which Culkin fits the part and delivers his lines is very impressive and a highlight of the movie.
Pesci and Stern’s depictions of the thieves, Harry Lime and Marv Merchants, respectively, set a standard of excellence in terms of depicting realistic physical harm in a comedic manner. Pesci’s Lime is the more level-headed of the two, while Stern’s Merchants is the more “artistic” thief. These distinctive character nuances at once balance and complement one another. The shrill, blood-curdling screams and reactions from both actors are incredible and truly iconic. The third act is in large part a very strong comedic sequence and Pesci and Stern demonstrate their acting and comedic acumen.
Catherine O’Hara delivers a strong performance as Kate McCallister. It is easy to critique the character, a mother, for forgetting her own child, but Kate’s determination to return to Kevin as quickly as possible, not matter the cost, is communicated in a convincing manner. Yes, Kate forgot Kevin, but her love and devotion to her family is evident.
Home Alone’s impressive production design is a strong feature of the movie. Kevin’s booby traps are creatively realized. The traps’ level of detail demonstrates that the production design and use of them in the story is not senseless, but is very intentional and meticulously and strategically developed. This is complemented by Julio Macat’s cinematography that captures the traps and their devastating, laugh-inducing effects.
Not surprisingly, John Williams’ music is another memorable part of Home Alone. The movie’s main theme is recognizable and synonymous with respected modern Christmas movie music. The orchestral elements convey the burglars’ nefarious intentions, as well as Kevin’s innocence and charm. Home Alone’s music is pivotal in setting the ambiance and I cannot think how the movie would have been without Williams’ compositions.
Chris Columbus does a brilliant job with his direction of Home Alone. The way in which he is able to extract noteworthy, comedic performances from his principle actors to his management of the production design and their humorous and extraordinary comedic results illustrate his strong directing ability. Columbus is able to make John Hughes’ screenplay come to life and become one of the most cherished and hilarious Christmas movies. I do wish that Columbus would have fixed the aforementioned issue of rushing Kevin’s preparation of the traps by simply showing him working earlier in the afternoon. Nevertheless, Columbus’ work in Home Alone is great and the movie’s reputation serves as evidence of that fact.
In the end, Home Alone is a Christmas movie that should not be missed. It features strong acting, solid writing, and terrific performances – all the elements viewers would want in an enjoyable holiday film. If you are worried that the film is entirely sophomoric and nothing but ninety minutes of inane comedy, you will be pleased to know that this presumption is not the case. It does have comedic elements, yes, but Home Alone has important underlying messages of cherishing family and not judging others. These are lessons from which we can all benefit, regardless of the time of year.
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Production: Twentieth Century Fox; Hughes Entertainment
Director: Chris Columbus
Producer: John Hughes
Screenwriter: John Hughes
Director of Photography: Julio Macat
Editor: Raja Gosnell
Music: John Williams
Costume Designer: Jay Hurley
Casting: Janet Hirshenson; Jane Jenkins
Production Designer: John Muto
Budget: ca. $18,000,000
Release Date: November 16, 1990
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Copyright Holder: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Cast: Macaulay Culkin; Joe Pesci; Daniel Stern; Catherine O’Hara; Roberts Blossom; John Heard; Angela Goethals; Devin Ratray; Gerry Bamman
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Rating: PG; Descriptors: N/A.
Running Time: 1 hour and 43 minutes (103 mins.)