The enduring Christmas movie Home Alone was released in 1990 during the holiday season. It performed so well at the time that it spawned two sequels and made child actor Macaulay Culkin a worldwide celebrity. Since its release, the film has taken on a new life as a seasonal staple, alongside A Christmas Story and A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The film stars Culkin as “Kevin McCallister,” a sarcastic, misunderstood eight-year-old, who feels that he unjustly occupies the role of a nuisance in the family. His brother picks on him, and his parents get annoyed when he doesn’t do as he’s told — and we get the sense that his parents are annoyed frequently. When his extended family is staying at his house the night before a flight to a winter vacation, Kevin is ejected from his bedroom and forced to sleep in the attic with his cousin, who wets the bed. Kevin makes a wish for his family to disappear; when he wakes up the next morning after they’ve left for their flight without him, it doesn’t take him long to see the situation as an opportunity to do all the things he’s always wanted to do.
This premise makes Home Alone a rewarding piece of storytelling because it lets both kids and adults experience the unrestrained fantasy of a precocious eight-year-old left to do as he pleases his family’s comfortable middle-class house. Kevin jumps on beds, eats ice cream by the bucket-load, and watches vintage gangster movies until all hours. He’s in heaven. The plot twist that follows draws in the audience even further: two cartoonish burglars (Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci) see the empty house as a different kind of opportunity and make plans to break in and steal the valuables.
Kevin is forced into a situation in which he must find the courage and wits within himself to defend his house. He’s too young to understand the monetary loss of a burglary; he just doesn’t want two bad guys messing with his home. His fear and anger drive him to be more clever than he’s ever had to be, and he rigs a series of booby-traps to outsmart the criminals.
With a script from John Hughes (who you probably know was the director of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink) and direction from Chris Columbus (who also directed Mrs. Doubtfire and wrote the screenplay for Gremlins), Home Alone has all the elements of a bona fide nineties populist classic.
It wasn’t universally praised by critics, and Roger Ebert called it “implausible,” predicting that audiences would feel detached from the story. While the film might have failed to thrill most critics, it did perform well among general viewing audiences: the original film grossed $17 million opening weekend on a budget of $15 million, and it earned a domestic total of $285,761,243 and a worldwide total of $476,684,675.
Admittedly, there’s nothing funny about home invasion — especially if you live in Florida, home to 11 of the nation’s most dangerous cities (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/31/most-dangerous-cities-florida_n_4524866.html) and home invasion has spurred a unprecdented demand for home security systems (www.securitychoice.com/adt-home-security/florida/n/naples/). But the film tempers its violence with a heaping dose of sentimentality. And while all the booby-traps and slapstick elements are memorable, those elements alone aren’t what make the film a Christmas classic. There are many touching moments in the film. In the process of thwarting the robbery, Kevin has a touching encounter with the scary old man (Roberts Blossom) who lives by himself in Kevin’s neighborhood and spends Christmas alone. It’s this moment of tenderness, and the emotional homecoming at the end, that give the movie its warmth and makes the audience feel loved — even if they live in Florida.
The film’s success certainly had something to do with Culkin’s on-screen charm, which would also explain why the actor is still universally beloved for the role after decades in hiding. It’s this combination of Culkin’s memorable personality, Hughes’ pitch-perfect nostalgia and Chris Columbus’ competent directing that makes it a continually rewarding film each year around the holidays.