HOME ALONE at 25

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A live-action kids movie is never supposed to be a blockbuster. But Home Alone was. And 25 years later, it’s still very easy to see why.

Home Alone wasn’t just big. It was huge. In the holiday season of 1990, when it opened on November 16 to a 3-day $17 million haul (enough for #1 that weekend), no one could’ve predicted that it would go on to be an absolute cultural phenomenon. But it did. By the time it was done, Home Alone grossed $286 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $565 million. In today’s movie climate, that’s a stratosphere reserved for only the elite comic book movies and franchise tentpoles. But at the time, it was enough to rank Home Alone as the #3 Movie of All-Time (behind only E.T. and Star Wars). Or, in 2015 terms, that’s the equivalent of Jurassic World.

Even so, just because a movie plays big in its time doesn’t necessarily mean it will hold up over time. But Home Alone has. Its popularity endures. It’s achieved a Christmas Classic status alongside the most beloved holiday movies. I can’t sagely speak for an entire nation as to why, but these are the 5 things that I still respond to – and always will. Its strengths are hardly unique or special, cinematically speaking, but it’s worthwhile to consider them because, somehow, they all came together in a unique and special way 25 years ago.

  1. The Right Script. The screenplay by John Hughes isn’t his most original, nor does it fit the 80s Teen Movie template that made him a Gen X legend, yet Home Alone is still quintessential John Hughes. What is that, exactly? Well, it’s a fairly recognizable formula that Hughes somehow makes distinctly his own. His plots never strayed too far from the norm, but he saw the familiar in a very singular way. Other people made similar movies, but not with his voice. Comedy that ranged from dry to broad, at times bizarre, and in the end always sincerely sentimental. He knew how to express what everyone felt. That was every John Hughes movie, and in Home Alone his voice elevated standard kid-movie fare to something that resonated across all age demographics.
  2. The Right Director. Only the third directing credit to his name (before going on to launch the Harry Potter franchise), Chris Columbus was a protégé of Steven Spielberg. As a scriptwriter, he wrote the most successful Amblin Entertainment movies of the 80s (aka the ones Spielberg produced but didn’t direct), notably Gremlins and The Goonies. We see the Spielberg touch in Home Alone, too, and we hear it in the John Williams score. Like Spielberg, Columbus was able to transcend a conventional suburbia setting to something bigger than itself (in the same way another Spielberg protégé – Robert Zemeckis – did five years prior with Back To The Future). But at the core, Columbus – like Spielberg at his best – kept the sentiment rooted and grounded, not schmaltzy or cheesy. It was unabashed but it rang true. And that’s the perfect tone to strike, especially for a holiday movie.
  3. The Right KidMacaulay Culkin may be a real-life disaster now, but he was perfect then – especially for what John Hughes was going for. Culkin worked so well in Hughes’ Uncle Buck that Hughes tailored Home Alone specifically for him. Culkin wasn’t the most natural or convincing child actor we’ve ever seen, but his cute, oddly direct delivery was exactly right for this, by Hughes’ intentional design.
  4. The Right Goons. In 1990, Daniel Stern was largely known by his voice, not his face, narrating every episode of The Wonder Years as the adult Kevin Arnold. But Joe Pesci was at a career peak. Home Alone opened just two months after Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which went on to earn Pesci an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Here, Pesci adjusted his mafia persona for a family movie – free of profanity and played for laughs – in a way that amazingly didn’t feel neutered or watered-down. And together, Pesci and Stern were the perfect bungling duo, right down to the stark height differential, as they committed themselves (and their bodies) fully to the bone-breaking pratfall style of the old Warner Bros cartoons. And yes, the “frick-n-frack” child-safe non-profanity “swearing” only added to the humor.
  5. The Right Emotion. This is what makes Home Alone endure. Sure, the plot construction is inventive and the final act earns huge laughs, but it’s the emotional through-line that actually raises the dramatic stakes. As kids have fun with the antics (not to mention the fantasy of being home alone), adults are drawn in by Kate, the distraught mother. We empathize with her maternal struggle, her guilt and worry, and her unrelenting determination to fight through every impossibility in order to fly back from France and get back to her son. Our concern isn’t really for Kevin; it emerges from the mother’s journey, We’re emotionally invested in her, and her tenacity to get a “yes” when everyone’s giving her a “no”. She will not give up. Catherine O’Hara embodies it all with strength and vulnerability, and she’s the one who ends up carrying the movie. Then, along with her, there’s Old Man Marley next door. Played early on as a scary boogie man for the lonely Kevin to fear, his subplot evolves into to a powerfully felt story of a broken family, and a grandfather whose own anger and fear has led to regret. From his tender church confession to Kevin, to the final scene payoff, Marley’s arc never fails to make me a blubbering puddle in the best way. It strikes a sentimental chord, but deeply, and even now I can’t help but get choked up thinking about it. I enjoy everything about Home Alone, but it’s these emotional layers that keep delivering the biggest re-watching rewards.

There are, of course, other popular elements I failed to include, most notably the extended (and uncredited) John Candy cameo. His polka bandleader (who helps Kate get back to Kevin) was formed largely by improve, and Hughes asked Candy to use his character from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – another Hughes holiday film – as inspiration. But from that, to the perfect holiday spirit it captures, to the nostalgic charm of how this story could never actually happen today due to advances in technology, Home Alone has not only become a holiday classic but a culture heirloom. Like the greats before it, we’ll be passing it on from generation to generation – for another 25 years and more.

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