The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys. YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros. Countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and videogames whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look back at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?
The Home Alone house is real. It’s not an elaborate example of set design sitting somewhere on the 20th Century Fox backlot—it’s an actual 1920s Georgian, located at 671 Lincoln Ave. in the tiny Chicago suburb of Winnetka. You can check it out on Google Street View (that white van next door looks awfully suspicious), and up until this past March, you could also purchase the place, as someone recently did for $1.585 million. You can also do what my wife and I plan to do sometime in the next two weeks and drive to Winnetka under the auspices of looking at Christmas lights—with the true intention of seeing, with your own two eyes, the home Kevin McCallister successfully defended from The Wet Bandits more than two decades ago.
The mustiest of clichés reminds us that a house is not necessarily a home, but the residence at 671 Lincoln nonetheless stands for several simple, childlike conceptions of one. In the opening scenes of Home Alone and its 1992 sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, it’s absolutely packed with people. (Home is where your family is.) After Macaulay Culkin’s Kevin is left behind in Chicago while the rest of the McCallisters jet off to France, he revels in the creature comforts and various personal effects that have suddenly become his alone. (Home is where your stuff is.) When the outside world turns frightening, from threats real or perceived, Kevin makes a fortress from the four walls around him. (Home is where we find security.)
These first two Home Alone movies—a necessary distinction because there are now fewer films in the franchise with Culkin than without—understood how a kid feels about his home. Seeing them in the theater was like seeing an exaggerated version of your own childhood thoughts and emotions projected onscreen. Looking back on the films, I can pick out thematic reasons why this is; in the moment, however, I simply appreciated the fact that Kevin feared his house’s basement as much as I feared my own.
That’s certainly no accident on the part of the film’s screenwriter. John Hughes staked his reputation on a series of comedies and dramas that tapped into big-tent teenage anxieties with uncanny precision. The likes of The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off managed to convince millions of mixed-up teens that Hughes was speaking directly to them. In many ways, his Home Alone scripts are a synthesis of Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller, boiled down and cartoon-ified for the preteen set: Like Sixteen Candles’ Sam, Kevin has a family seemingly bent on forgetting about him. The Ferris Bueller angle, meanwhile, comes through in the wish fulfillment portrayed in the opening acts of Home Alone and Home Alone 2—Kevin merely swaps Mr. Frye’s Ferrari for his very own cheese pizza. The young Mr. McCallister even talks directly to the camera like Ferris, albeit in a manner that only takes a few chunks out of the fourth wall.
One more similarity between Hughes’ slickest male protagonists: You outgrow your admiration of them. My younger self wanted to be as smooth-talking, resourceful, and funny as Kevin, but my current self hopes I was never that obnoxious. The way Kevin feigns adulthood and sophistication is part of the genius of Hughes’ scripts; unfortunately, Culkin’s performance matches artificiality with more artificiality. Sometimes it works—Kevin’s interactions with the hotel staff in Home Alone 2 have a great, Bugs Bunny-like sense of playful antagonism—but most of the time, his line readings hit adult ears like nails on a chalkboard. With each passing year, it gets harder to fight thoughts like, “Yeah, I know exactly what Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are going through here.”
But the scenes where Kevin gets the best of the adults aren’t for those of legal drinking age—they are, like the plastic army men that slip into his grocery-store trip in the first film, “for the kids.” And at the time of Home Alone’s release, the entertainment those kids preferred increasingly hinged on the independence granted to Kevin in his “be careful what you wish for” scenario. This was a time when Nickelodeon proudly declared itself “the first kids’ network” and ABC’s TGIF block courted viewers too young to go out on a Friday night with the kid-centric likes of Full House and Family Matters. By indulging the fantasy of an 8-year-old ruling his personal household kingdom and outsmarting all grown-up challengers to that authority, Home Alone was expertly timed to catch that wave of kid empowerment. (Cast member Michael C. Maronna worked this trend from two fronts, thanks to Nick’s The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, which began as a series of interstitial shorts in 1989.)
In line with this trend, Kevin’s main conflict is not with his family, the burglars played by Pesci and Stern, or the staff of The Plaza Hotel—it’s with the world at large. All of the adults he encounters in the outside world regard him with either skepticism or outright hostility. Even Eddie Bracken’s kindly Home Alone 2 toy-store owner, E.F. Duncan, inquiries as to why someone Kevin’s age is wandering around New York City all by his lonesome. The motif verges on self-parody in the sequel, building to an ugly, suburbanite-soothing passage in which Culkin’s character is harassed by some of The Big Apple’s finest ambassadors, cartoonish degenerates whose ranks include a pair of prostitutes who mockingly ask, “Ooh, looking for someone to read you a bedtime story?” Callous streetwalkers aside, the sequence does speak to an astute observation from Hughes’ script: When you’re Kevin’s age, the world looks impossibly huge and endlessly cruel. A home and people who love you, as the character finds out, help neutralize these impressions.
Kevin’s trip into the grimy underbelly of Manhattan after dark is still a sign of Home Alone 2’s general bloat, however. It’s only 18 minutes longer than Home Alone, but it feels like it has a good hour on its relatively swift predecessor. There’s an antsy “When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?” buildup to the big booby-trap setpieces in both films, but because Home Alone 2 so slavishly replicates the beats of the first film—down to the first-act jokes about cousin Fuller’s poor bladder control—it’s absolute murder getting to Kevin’s slapstick assault on The Wet Bandits. There are kiddie-pleasing detours like the trip to Duncan’s Toy Chest embedded in the prelude to the Tom And Jerry-like hijinks, but as a whole these scenes just delay the knee-slapping tricks and injuries. Kevin’s escape from the Plaza staffers—led by a hammy Tim Curry—revs the movie’s engine for a few minutes, but its well-staged payoff is merely a clone of the Home Alone scenes where the fake film noir Angels With Filthy Souls (“Keep the change, ya filthy animal”) prevents Kevin from having to answer the back door. In a sly acknowledgment that the second verse of Home Alone is same as the first, the title of the film that bails out Kevin this time around is Angels With Even Filthier Souls. As a lesson to practice wariness with regard to movie sequels, Home Alone 2 is priceless. Any child of the ’90s who complained that The Hangover Part II merely reheated the leftovers of The Hangover obviously didn’t spend the better part of 1991 and 1992 breathlessly following the development of Home Alone 2 in Disney Adventures magazine.
But I didn’t go to the movie theater to learn a lesson—I went to see Pesci and Stern get busted in the face with blunt objects. The lasting legacy of the Home Alone franchise took root in the first film’s climax, where Kevin outfits the McCallister house like a gauntlet co-designed by Rube Goldberg and the Marquis de Sade. In my experience, mileage with this sequence—and the one that followed in Home Alone 2—varies depending on one’s Looney Tunes consumption at the time of the film’s release. I recall my grandma complaining that Kevin’s second takedown of Harry (Pesci) and Marv (Stern) was much more violent than the one depicted in Home Alone; I later learned my mother-in-law walked out of the first film, family in tow, reportedly fuming, “This is not funny. These people could get seriously hurt.”
I, on the other hand, was endlessly tickled by the sight of a hot iron leaving an imprint on Daniel Stern’s face. Fox clearly saw me and thousands of kids like me coming, because marketing for both films went heavy on the pratfalls, while videogame adaptations across multiple platforms involved stepping into Kevin’s shoes to set the traps yourself. If you couldn’t live the fantasy of having a giant house all to yourself, at least you could have the satisfaction of hilariously disposing of a pair of low-down crooks! Of all the things to enjoy about Home Alone and Home Alone 2, I always suspected I’d outgrow the slapstick first—that certainly seemed like the adult thing to do, like learning to balance a checkbook or not judging an elderly snow-shoveler or Central Park pigeon woman by their outward appearances.
But the curious thing about all those kids cracking up at the abuse leveled at Pesci and Stern in the two films is that a lot of them grew up to appreciate the go-for-broke manner in which the original Home Alones conduct their chaos. It’s a strange, cartoonish intrusion on what’s otherwise a comedy about learning not to take things like family for granted—and it’s only funny because you know Harry and Marv will just pop right back up every time. It’s a little bit twisted, but so is a movie predicated on an 8-year-old being forgotten by a dozen or so blood relations. Ultimately, if he goes to extreme, occasionally sadistic measures, he’s doing it for people whom he learned to love in their absence. (And presumably to save his own life. There’s a lot of weird child-endangerment stuff going on in these movies, too.) There’s a ring of truth to that, because everyone, no matter their age, wants to seem like a hero to their family. You’ll never be able to prove it to an outside world that scoffs at you and tries to kick you out of its five-star hotels, so you might as well do it at home.
And besides, have you seen that house? Who wouldn’t risk an assault charge trying to protect it?