Unlike Easter, New Years Day or the summer solstice there’s a wealth of Christmas themed films. Ranging from the saccharine Miracle on 34th Street to the bitter Bad Santa, there’s a Christmas movie out there for every taste. So, in the run up to Christmas, we got our writers to tell us about their personal festive favourite. This time we have Liam Callander who looks at how Home Alone captures a child’s perspective on Christmas.
From my childhood, two Christmas films stand out: Santa Clause: The Movie and Home Alone. The first is a syrupy tale of a middle aged Englishman dressed like a flamboyant Amish midget who makes wooden toys and sprinkles gold dust on reindeers to make them fly. Santa is there and there’s some orphan kid, an evil conglomerate and John Lithgow. The result is a cynical Hollywood film ladling the ‘spirit’ of Christmas with its Coca-Cola company inspired hokum. I hate Santa Clause: The Movie.
Then there’s Home Alone. Dispensing with the twee, biscuit tin approach to festive cinema found in Santa Clause: The Movie, it’s a laugh out loud comedy first and foremost, albeit one with a deceptively dark and complex story that refuses to patronise its audience. On one hand it revels in the magic of the holidays, on the other it deals with the loneliness and isolation of being at the bottom of the food chain in a large family – a place where you’re voiceless and have to be ruthless to survive. And did I mention this film contains one of the funniest comedy duos in Christmas cinema lore: The Wet Bandits? More on them later.
The success of Home Alone is that the film is told successfully from a child’s perspective. In this story adults are rarely seen in a good light: parents who abandon their children, an uncle who resorts to calling his 8 year old nephew a jerk, store clerks who do not trust children and of course two particularly inept robbers who try to literally steal Christmas. Is it a surprise then that Home Alone’s scribe is none other than John Hughes? Prior to the exploits of the McAllister family, Hughes had written Ferris Bueller, Weird Science and The Breakfast Club. These films force the audience to look at the world through younger eyes. Kevin McAllister is a classic Hughes character; an outsider who is hidden in plain sight but with enough untapped potential to take on the world.
Hughes’ script is also complemented by the direction of Christopher Columbus. The director has a track record for handling big comedic set pieces whilst producing an assured central performance from a child actor; Adventures in Babysitting and the first two Harry Potter movies spring to mind. Oh, and let’s just throw into the mix John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T.) who provides the score. The fact that I grew up as a John Williams-aholic without realising it until later in life, proves that embedded in Home Alone are some great connections to other childhood classic films I love. Williams, like Hughes and Columbus, has a cinematic track record of evoking childhood spirit and rebellion and the score of Home Alone is a mix of anarchy and wholesomeness, much like Kevin himself.
I was 8 years old when this film was released. A time when Christmas involved flipping through the Argos catalogue and wishing for all the wrestling figures, or getting to take board games into school instead of all that time stupidly learning stuff. I admired Kevin McAllister; he looks tiny and feeble against the other kids but is unafraid to challenge adults over their hypocrisy and stupidity. He was concocting booby traps whilst I was still trying to figure out what the hell a Pop Tart was. The first two acts of the film belong to Kevin; his journey from little-boy-lost to realising his own inner maturity and bravery.
If the first two acts belong to Kevin, the third definitely belongs to The Wet Bandits. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are the Grinch-esque bad guys out to rob the McAllister residence. Both Stern and Pesci do not hold back on the hapless attempts to gain access to the McAllister household. How can you not laugh out loud as an iron comes crashing down onto the face of Marv? I rewatched this film two days ago at the ripe old age of 33 still could not suppress my laughter. Once the attempted burglary starts in earnest, Kevin is reduced to running around fist pumping and shooting his gun. It’s really Harry and Marv who grab all the screen time, and they’re fantastic. They are the embodiment of Kevin’s disillusionment with adults; always underestimating him due to his age and size, always quick to overlook him as a credible quick thinking person, too busy with their own goals to consider him. I know now looking back that Joe Pesci was the revelation here because of his Goodfellas connection but for me I always loved Daniel Stern’s performance because of his physicality from his over the top hair to his elongated screams during the burglary.
There’s also a fantastic family story in there too. The journey home for Catherine O’Hara shows the fatigued, enduring battle Christmas becomes for parents. O’Hara’s journey home is one which Kevin cannot see, but one which cinema-going parents could surely sympathise with. From her hellish attempts to get a flight over the holidays to getting the Chicago authorities to take her concerns of her abandoned son seriously, she is a parent at the end of her tether. A fantastic cameo from the late John Candy as a member of a polka band offers another chance to highlight sacrifices made by parents at Christmas – the polka musicians are presented as a support group for absent fathers rather than a musical collective. The point to this? Not all adults are bad; which we as kids know but conveniently forget at the holidays. And it’s cool that Home Alone lets us see this; to remind us that the more pressure we put on ourselves at Christmas time, the further we are disconnected from the true Christmas spirit.
All that and you get to see Joe Pesci get his head blow-torched. I don’t just watch Home Alone at Christmas time; I watch it whenever I feel like being cheered up.