My rules for what constitutes a Christmas film is pretty simple. A) the film should be set at Christmas. Kind of a no brainer that. 2) The film should promote family togetherness over the pursuit of material things. And D) There should be at least some element of heart-warming schmaltz going on. This all sounds a little twee and silly but it is the basic ingredients of all good Christmas films. Scrooged has it, Die Hard has it and even Bad Santa fulfils that criteria. Home Alone may be one of the finest examples of those requirements being met. Also it has one of the most violent finales to a film ever filmed. Well, within the restrictions of a PG certificate. Click the link below ya filthy animals.
Do I even need to summarise the plot of Home Alone? Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) has incredibly poor parents that can’t manage to remember they have a child they sent to the attic to sleep the night before. So they head to Paris, he’s left home alone… hence the title… and then a pair of thieves try to rob his house. Kevin reacts by trying to murder them. Also the mother learns that she overlooks Kevin and he learns to take care of himself and to not be so scared of the central heating. Or something. It’s Home Alone. You’ve seen it. Have you seen it recently? Cos it really holds up well.
I’ve always seen this as a solid film, not just a Christmas feature. That said, I don’t think I’ve watched Home Alone all the way through since it was on VHS. This has happened a few times over the years on The Film Dump. I expected the film to just be a fun enough little excursion and a bit of a nostalgia trip, and whilst it was certainly a fair amount of the latter, it was also a well constructed and smartly written little film. That whole terrible parents thing, well, John Hughes wrote in every possible excuse he could to make sure that you at least understand how a family to travel to the other side of the world without their 8 year old son.
There’s 15 people in the house, we see it as chaotic. In the morning everyone is rushing around due to the power lines going down and taking out their alarm clocks… which could have been avoided if they used battery operated ones like normal people, but, whatever. When doing a head count a neighbourhood kid is rooting through the mini-bus they’re due to get on and has his head counted by accident. Kevin had got into trouble the night before and was sent to sleep in the attic bedroom and was, therefore, in a place he wouldn’t normally be and so was overlooked. As far as bad parenting goes this is a fine display, but at least you can just about excuse it and not hate the mother, Kate (Catherine O’Hara) too much. That is key to the film having the heart-warming element I mentioned earlier. You need to feel the sympathy or, in the end, we’d just want to watch Kevin keep maiming thieves forever. Would have made a good origin for Dexter though.
Other impressive little touches is how often the film bothers to inform you and foreshadow later events. Kevin shoots some action figures down a laundry chute, informing of his aim with a BB gun and the fact they have a laundry chute before both are used later. Kevin’s father Peter (John Heard) mentions the Micro Machines Kevin has left in the hallway as a potential tripping hazard, which, later, they very much are. Kevin shows his ingenuity with ropes and pulleys to make his house appear to be in the midst of a party to fool the thieves, later those pulleys are used to trigger a number of traps. Just simple little elements like that help keep the film flowing in your mind grapes with no moments of dissonance as you attempt to reconcile why Kevin suddenly has a BB gun, or what fate may befall Marv (Daniel Stern) when you see him pull a fake light switch whilst stood under a laundry chute. You keep up to speed fast enough that you’re a fraction ahead of the film at just the right moments which is such an under-rated and much needed element of good slapstick comedy. It isn’t enough that someone be hit with an iron, we must anticipate the humour of it first or it’s just an act of violence.
Another moment I really liked is when Kevin makes his wish for his family to disappear. He shouts it at his mother and storms to bed. There’s then a lightening storm and all sorts of magical music to give the impression that the film is doing one of them “kid’s wish comes true” stories, ala Big and Liar Liar. That trope was already out-dated by the time Home Alone came out. It was especially out-dated when liar Liar came out. Here it’s handled in a playful manner. We see what actually happens, Kevin does not. So when he wakes up he has a few minutes of realisation that maybe, just maybe, his wish did come true. It’s a nice touch that allows the film to have a moment of Christmas magic while we also get to see the comedy of errors that does actually lead to Kevin’s predicament.
There is a few little missteps here and there. Kevin uses what is effectively the same trick twice, that being playing back a fictional gangster film called Angels With Dirty Faces to trick both a pizza delivery boy and again to fool Marv into thinking the house is occupied with dangerous gangsters. Whilst you could say the earlier pizza delivery scene was foreshadowing the later Marv scene, they happen moments apart, plus we had seen Kevin watching the film earlier. A more efficient method would have bee to show Kevin playing back the violent part of the film over and over, enjoying his current new found freedom. You could say the pizza delivery scene helped show Kevin’s ingenuity and how he was now taking care of himself, but we have a scene of him doing the shopping on his own and various scenes of him being inventive. Other missteps are slight, moments of child actor mugging for the camera, character’s being sidelined or forgotten entirely as the film moved on, but they’re minor quibbles in an otherwise superb film.
Whilst there is that child mugging for the camera factor, particularly from the too smug for his own good Culkin, the cast put on quite a nice light comedy performance. Special nods have to go to Catherine O’Hara who is brilliant as ever and has, easily, the most range to work through as the film progresses. Roberts Blossom (no, the blossom does not belong to Robert) plays Old Man Marley, an urban legend of the street allegedly responsible for a string of murders. He’s largely silent and a source of fear and mystery for Kevin but as the film moves along Kevin gets progressively less scared of him, showing his growth, and this all leads to a nice heart-warming scene in a church where Blossom gives just the right amount of earnestness to the film at just the right point before the third act. To add to those Joe Pesci is pretty damn excellent in a slapstick comedy role as Harry Lyme to the degree where it almost feels like his true calling. Sure, he’s playing another short tempered criminal, but every grimace and physical comedic moment is handled perfectly. It’s so easy for an actor to mess up physical comedy, just look at Shah Rukh Khan in Chennai Express for example. Pesci nails it.
I legitimately did not expect to be reviewing this film so positively, especially as my previous Christmas film choices for Christmas Special reviews have been decidedly darker/morbid. But Home Alone captures the essence of Christmas, provides some genuinely great slapstick, a large helping of heart and a John Candy cameo. And maybe an Elvis cameo is the tin foil hat wearing types are to be believed. I’d agree that your tolerance for Macaulay Culkin could be a major factor here, but as Home Alone is pre Getting Even With Dad, I’d say you should be fine. I would be amazed if anyone reading this hasn’t seen Home Alone really. You probably already know it’s a great Christmas film. A genuinely great one. Not like those lame Christmas films like Elf and Jingle All The Way… and especially The Grinch. Yeah… I just dissed your favourite Christmas films. What of it? I don’t care cos Home Alone is great and I feel better for having revisited it last night. Now, I need to schedule Die Hard for Christmas Day.