When Home Alone was first released in theaters at then end of 1990, I was an impressionable 10-year-old whose knowledge of the world was soft and pliable. I knew the broad-strokes of American history, the rules of two-hand-touch football, and the best places in the backyard to hide for hide-and-seek. I knew nothing of the suburbs of Chicago, the stresses of air travel over the holidays, or the ineffectiveness of automatic timers for Christmas lights. Home Alone had a lot to teach me, and it's continued to do so as I watch it on television at least once a year heading into the Christmas season. As another holiday season kicks off, I wonder if the other kids from my generation learned the same lessons.
With that in mind, here's a list of my top ten takeaways from Home Alone:
The very simple plot of Home Alone is that a very large extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins try to take a holiday trip to Paris, and amid all the hubbub of getting the entire clan off to the airport and onto the plane (while running late for movie reasons), the youngest child of Peter and Kate McCallister (John Heard and Catherine O'Hara) is accidentally left at home. Young Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) must make do for himself while fending off a pair of bumbling burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) before a Christmas miracle can reunite him with his family.
What's clear to me after many viewings is that the real reason Kevin gets left home alone isn't the blackout that turned off the alarm clocks, or the nosy neighbor boy who screws up Heather's head-count when they're about to board the vans. The real reason is that there were too damn many people in that house. Why did Uncle Frank, Aunt Leslie, and their kids drive all the way from Ohio the night before the trip? So they could all fly direct from Chicago? Just connect! The apparent deal here is that Peter and Frank's (wealthy as hell) brother lives in Paris and decided to fly his entire huge-ass family to Paris for Christmas. Just make him pay for the connecting flight from Cleveland or wherever! Instead of making Kate and Peter find space for six extra people to sleep in their (admittedly palatial) home, all while preparing for a transatlantic family vacation with small children? It's insane! The two families — plus the Paris uncle's two kids going to school in the States — should have all traveled separately and met up in Paris, thus avoiding this entire mess.
After Kevin attacks Buzz for eating the last of the cheese pizza (and thus causing the mess that leaves one plane ticket and one passport in the trash), Kate sends him upstairs to sleep in the attic, which, yes, sounds scary but otherwise seems blissfully quiet. You get the sense that Kate might want to retire to the attic herself. But Kevin's mad and stomps and says he wishes he didn't have a family anymore. And then the next morning, he wakes up and they're all gone, as if by magic. The lesson: be careful what you wish for, especially when that first day of unlimited ice cream sundaes and sledding down the front stairs gives way to creeping robbers and scary furnace monsters.
Once the family lands in Paris and Kate gets to a pay phone, she calls the local police, who pass her call around for a while before disinterestedly sending a beat cop over to check the house and make sure Kevin's okay. So the cop shows up, rings the doorbell twice, and, when there's no answer, presumes everything is fine (?!?!). He then has the nerve to mutter, "Tell her to count her kids again"! And nothing more is done. Job well done, officer!
When I was about eleven or twelve years old, I desperately wanted my parents to let me walk up to our local supermarket and do the grocery shopping by myself. This was 100% because a few years earlier I'd seen Home Alone and was so captivated by self-sufficient little Kevin walking to and from the grocery store and stocking up on food and sundries for himself. Everybody in the movie seemed just as impressed as I was, from the slightly suspicious grocery clerk to his dad and siblings who show up at the end and can't believe he went shopping for milk, eggs, and fabric softener. It seemed like the height of adult responsibility, and at age 11, I wanted nothing more than to be seen as the responsible adult I was. And so when I was finally allowed to, I followed the (limited) shopping list to the letter, made sure the checkout clerk double bagged so I wouldn't suffer the same broken-bag disaster on the trip home that Kevin did, and I walked those two bags of groceries right back home. People were less impressed when I did it. Jerks.
Half of the joy of Home Alone lies in watching the Rube Goldbergian ingenuity of Kevin as he finds all these elaborate ways to booby-trap his home with household items. But earlier, when he's still just trying to make Marv and Harry leave his house alone, he plays the "Angels with Filthy Souls" video to scare Marv into thinking there's a gangland execution happening (in a large family home in the Chicago suburbs in broad daylight). To help sell the illusion, Kevin pulls a string of firecrackers out of a drawer in the kitchen and sets them off inside a dutch oven. First of all, 1) that's some Unabomber shit, Kev, but more importantly 2) WHY WERE THERE FIRECRACKERS IN THE KITCHEN?? The mind genuinely boggles. In Buzz's room, sure. In the garage or basement, of course. But in the junk drawer in the kitchen where we keep our free-range rubber-bands, Elmer's glue, and various allen wrenches?
Look, I don't know what kind of firepower it takes to heat wealthy people's homes. I just know that the furnace in my parents' house looked like a boring metal container, as did the water heater. Meanwhile, Kevin's family used some kind of self-immolating coal oven that looks like it requires ten fresh children a day to be sacrificed to its maw in order to appease Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge. If Kevin was able to get over his fear of the literal fire-monster living in his basement, the cobwebs in mine were just fine.
Marv's insistence on flooding the homes that he and Harry rob so that they'll achieve the moniker of "The Wet Bandits" is not only unnecessarily cruel to their victims, it's also really bad marketing. Marv and Harry break into people's homes and steal all their valuables. Those aren't the actions of a "bandit." A bandit robs banks (or perhaps stagecoaches). A bandit moves in swiftly and efficiently, almost always steals from people while they're there, then scoots out of town to the next heist. What Marv and Harry do doesn't make them bandits. They're burglars! Classic burglars. Build your brand around that, Marv!
Ultimately, it's not the police or his parents or his own instruments of cartoon violence that save Kevin. It was Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom), who knocked Harry and Marv out just as Harry was preparing to bite off Kevin's fingers (!). This, after Buzz's urban legend about Marley having slaughtered his family with a shovel had gotten Kevin so scared that when he encountered Marley on the street he screamed in his face and ran away. Thankfully, Kevin and Marley had a very touching scene in church before it was clobberin' time for the ol' Wet Bandits.
There have been some critics and general spoil-sports who have grumbled over the years about the cartoon violence in Home Alone and what a shame it is that a successful family comedy had to include the kind of violence that, had it actually happened to people, likely would have killed them. Nuts to that, I say! Home Alone skillfully balances the warm family comedy stuff with the final half hour that turns into a Straw Dogs Holiday Special. The only thing fetishized in that last 30 minutes is just how elaborate Kevin's booby traps are. Sure, there's the simplicity of the recurring frozen-steps gag. But the really impressive parts are the various elaborate mouse-traps Kevin sets. These come from the Rube Goldberg school of overly complicated machines designed to accomplish simple tasks. There were probably more direct ways to fend off Harry than, say, saran wrap coated in glue followed by a triggered fan blowing feathers onto his face. The BB gun full of rock salt to the crotch for example: effective and efficient. The blowtorch triggered by opening the back door, though? Impressive!
The best scene in Home Alone doesn't even involve Kevin or booby traps. It's Canadian comedy legends Catherine O'Hara and John Candy sharing a van ride from Scranton to Chicago. The subtle ways in which the gregarious Candy unintentionally makes O'Hara's Kate feel even worse and more worried is a scream, all while the good-Samaritan aspect of the van ride is genuinely heart-warming. And it serves as the amuse bouche for the real heart-tugging moment when Kate gets home and gives Kevin a Christmas-morning hug.
Home Alone is available for streaming on Disney+ and airs the following dates and times on Freeform:
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.