The Dual Nature of Home Alone

Are the booby traps in Home Alone just slapstick fun, or the core of the message?

In honor of the 25th anniversary of Home Alone, barricaded ourselves into an empty suburban home, set up an elaborate series of booby traps, and hunkered down to analyze what the film is really about. Here’s part one of our two-part conversation.

Belinkie: So guys, Home Alone turns 25 this year! I recently rewatched it, and it struck me as a strangely schizophrenic movie. It’s about a child who is sick of his family, and gets accidentally left behind for the holidays. For a while he’s delighted that his dreams have come true, and he revels in doing all the things his parents would never have let him do. But gradually, he comes to miss them. On Christmas Eve he makes a wish to have things go back to the way they were, and sure enough his family returns the next day. It’s a perfect little “be careful what you wish for” fairy tale.

kevin-1But 75% of the way through the film, it suddenly becomes a Looney Tune about a boy setting booby traps for burglars. This has only the flimsiest plot justification (why doesn’t Kevin call the police when the bad guys show up, instead of 20minutes later?) and it’s easy to imagine the movie telling the same story without any burglars at all. And yet, it’s this slapstick third act of the movie that seems to get all the love and attention. Is this a case where the movie offers the simple pleasures of a man getting shot in the nuts for kids, and a more nuanced coming of age story for the parents?

Stokes: I think it’s more nuanced than that. Consider: the “mature” plot as you’ve described it is essentially the same plot as ​Where the Wild Things Are​. Max doesn’t want to deal with his mom, so he goes to the land of no moms. Eventually he gets tired of that, so he comes home and hugs his mommy. (It’s a comedy: ultimately, nothing changes.) But that interval between the departure and the return is super important! ​Where the Wild Things Are is the name of the book for a reason. You’ve got to let the wild rumpus start. And that’s the sequence where Macaulay Culkin gets his Jack Bauer on. When you say “he revels in doing all the things his parents would never let him do,” you have it 90% right. But not all of those things are nice cute things like pretending to shave. Some of them involve hitting a grown man in the nuts with a golf club, or whatever he actually does. (Matt, you have two children. Don’t tell me you don’t know what evil lurks in the heart of man.)

A slightly more honest version of the story would have Kevin setting his booby traps for random strangers on the street, or various authority figures that he feels he’s been wronged by. (I wonder if there’s a draft of the script where he sets the booby traps ​for his parents,​ to teach them a lesson about leaving him behind.) But obviously this version could never get made, and so Kevin’s malicious id is provided with an appropriate target in the form of Joe Pesci. This makes it acceptable. (Because, sure, the little censor has run away to Paris. But the big censor is inside of us, and does not take vacations.)

kevin-and-burglarsBelinkie: I’m not convinced. In your reading, the booby trap sequence is the ultimate expression of Kevin’s child side. But I think it’s actually presented as quite the opposite. By that point in the movie, Kevin has matured a lot. He does the laundry. He cooks himself a sensible dinner. He does the dishes. He conquers his fear of the furnace. And before the crooks show up, he declares: “This is my house. I have to defend it.” In this context, there’s nothing wild rumpus about the booby traps. They are his attempts to meet the hostile adult world with an adult level of force. (Sure, he seems to enjoy himself when the burglars stumble into painful situation after painful situation, but his blueprint says “BATTLE PLAN” for a reason.)

But perhaps we can compromise and say that the booby traps are a synthesis of Kevin’s kid side and his newfound maturity. He has to draw upon both to win. (And then of course, he still almost loses, and he’s ultimately rescused by an adult authority figure. At the end of the day, there are limits to Kevin’s autonomy.)

Stokes: I think you are conflating “Kevin’s kid side” with “the stuff his parents don’t want him to do.” Do his parents not want him to be a child? And again, think about the iconic shaving scene. Shaving is a total adult move!

But autonomy is a good way to put it. All of the stuff he does while he’s alone — childish, responsible, cute, violent — is all autonomous in a way that kids don’t usually get to be.

Belinkie: So you think sledding down the stairs and shaving are both “wrong,” in different ways. Kevin sometimes plays at responsibility, but it’s still not the right role for him.

If that’s true, then Kevin’s “maturing” is just him indulging his freedom in a different way. The TRUE maturation is wishing to be a kid again and running into his mother’s arms.

Stokes: Yeah, or not maturing, exactly, but setting the balance right. I don’t think he’s supposed to be mature yet. I know that when my son is acting out and I get annoyed, I don’t want him to, like, go fill out my tax return. I want him to be the perfect adorable little boy that I know he really is.

kevin-gunBelinkie: I’m still not convinced the whole sequence with the booby traps is integral to Kevin’s story. He’s already decided he wants his family back before then. He’s already befriended the creepy neighbor. He doesn’t have any big revelations left to make.

Adams: So it’s important to remember: any discussion about Home Alone (1990) that doesn’t also involve Die Hard (1988) is fundamentally incomplete. Home Alone was in the hey-day of “Die Hard on a _______” movie pitches. And Home Alone fits that mold – it even takes place at Christmas! So do the goofy booby traps get in the way of the Kevin-coming-of-age-arc, or is the Kevin coming of age arc just a way of adding a veneer or development to the goofy booby traps?

diehardBelinkie: Oh wow! So it’s possible Home Alone started with the idea of a kid version of Die Hard, and then they reversed engineered a scenario that would make that happen? That theory is too good to check by Googling. But on the other hand, the non-booby trap part of Home Alone is VERY John Hughes. He constantly returned to the theme of kids (teenagers mostly) that can’t connect with parents or authority figures. Think of The Breakfast Club. Or Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles. Her parents literally forget her birthday. Or Cameron in Ferris Bueller, with his daddy issues. Kevin’s just another in a long line of John Hughes kids who are smarter than their two-dimensional parents.

Stokes: Doesn’t disprove the theory — that family dynamic is, like, the hammer that John Hughes has. Any screenwriting challenge that you toss him will presumably look like a nail.

“A kid version of die hard? What a concept! Hmm, obviously he needs to be isolated somehow — hey, I can just write that thing that I write! It totally fits.”

Heh, now I’m imagining every auteur doing their default version of Home Alone. Quentin Tarantino casts Samuel L. Jackson as Kevin. In Wes Anderson’s version the paint cans are meticulously crafted replicas of a discontinued watercolor set from 1970. M. Night Shyamalan reveals in a shocking twist that Kevin is actually a ghost haunting the house that he died in, and the burglars are actually the new owners.

Oh, whoops, “M. Night Shyamalan’s ​Home Alone​” is actually just ​The Others,​ my bad.

santa-clauseAdams: To get back at least a little to Matt’s original point, I think part of the schizophrenia that you describe is endemic to the genre of the Christmas movie. LOTS of Christmas movies have an overall story arc that’s grounded in some family-friendly character development, but a third act devoted to some zany premise grounded in magic/Santa/elves/etc. There’s no magic in Home Alone per se, but there may as well be, given the Wet Bandits seeming invulnerability to mortal injury.

(And Die Hard is not NOT one of those movies – it’s just that the zany third act takes up the entire running length of the movie, and the family friendly story arc gets squeezed into the first 15 minutes and closing credits sequence)

Stokes: Hmm. Good point. Kids movies in general sort of tend to do this, no? ​(And the disconnect between zany action and plot is arguably endemic to the action movie, which loops Die Hard back in.)

Belinkie: Perhaps what I’m saying is that Home Alone would seem to have a Ghost Ship problem. People watch the movie in large part to see the home invasion stuff… but that doesn’t begin until very late in the story. You could argue this is akin to Miracle, when the big game doesn’t actually happen until the very end. But in Miracle, that confrontation is on the radar from the very start. In Home Alone, the booby traps really come out of left field. (Sure, he rigs up a fake dinner party earlier, which I suppose you can argue sets up the grander schemes that will come later.)

In Part 2, Fenzel enters the Tank with a theory about sitcom logic, we finally get to Freud, and we uncover new ways that Home Alone is strangely split and yet totally cohesive. 


4 Comments on “The Dual Nature of Home Alone”

  1. REvans #

    Personally, I find the slapstick scenes a lot harder to watch the older I get. As Mr. Adams pointed out, by all reason, those burglars should have been killed by Kevin’s booby traps. There’s a fine line with slapstick between schadenfreude and just painful; for me, rusty nails, blowtorches, and cranial trauma are well on the “I can’t watch this” side of the line.

    On the other hand, the John Hughes bits–Kevin learning that the scary neighbor is just a lonely old man who misses his granddaughter, Catherine O’Hara as the increasingly desperate mother who is willing to “make a deal with the devil himself” to get home to her son–those parts work for me.

    (And can we talk for a second about Catherine O’Hara’s performance? Her frazzled attempts to manage her family in the pre-flight scenes, her reaction shots on the plane, her transitions from guilt to sadness at leaving the rest of her family to desperately begging strangers for their tickets to reluctantly laughing at John Candy’s jokes [Candy, by the by, is just stellar as the friendly polka performer/shoulder for O’Hara to cry on]…

    Catherine O’Hara is a cinematic treasure for the ages, is what I’m sayin’.)

    So yeah, put me on the side of holiday-themed cautionary tale/coming-of-age story with a weird detour into Die Hard For Kids in the third act.


    • REvans #

      …though it occurs to me that Matilda ends with a very similar “kid gets revenge on the mean old adults and then lives happily ever after with the GOOD/reformed parental figure” plot. So do a lot of kids movies from the early ’90s, come to think of it.

      Perhaps this bit of childhood wish fulfillment is a genre unto itself?


  2. DeanMoriarty #

    There’s actually a pretty solid screenwriting structure reason for the frequency of third acts seeming like a different movie. When you’re trying to build a frame for your plot, sometimes it works best if the basic tension of the first 2 acts is resolved at their end and that resolution leads to a different, but related conflict and tension in the last act of the movie. This structure can often lead the third act to feel like a different movie, or a mini-sequel to, the preceding acts.
    In Home Alone, Kevin learns that no matter how much they may annoy you, you need family at the end of the second act. Once that’s resolved, the movie kicks the slapstick defense of the house storyline into high gear and lets it take over. John Hughes was an amazing writer, but structure was never his strongest point or his main preoccupation. His movies were always more about the exploration of conflicts of character and emotion than about whatever thread of a plot tied those together. The fact that the third act also has a bit of a different tone than many of the parts that came before makes the difference more visible.
    Another way to look at the feeling of a split, and one that speaks to the difference in tone, is to see the third act as the moment where the movie passes from being a John Hughes movie to being a Chris Columbus movie. As has been pointed out, the first two acts are classic John Hughes, but the third is much closer to the style of frenetic, vaguely cartoony slapstick violence that’s fairly standard in many of Columbus’s movies. I’m thinking especially of the tree pummeling the flying car in HP 2, which (if I remember correctly) results in a destroyed car, a broken wand, but a relatively unharmed Ron and Harry.


  3. clayschuldt #

    Kevin does bust out his tricks prior to the 3rd act conclusion. We see him messing with the pizza guy by using the Filthy animal tape.
    I believe there is a subtle theme of Kevin lying or pretending to be more grown up to avoid the cruelty and unfair world of adults. The film does begin with Uncle Frank being a jerk and not letting Kevin watch a non R-rated film. In some ways this is a film about coming to terms with the REALLY bad adults. Compared to Harry and Marv the rest of the films adults are not that bad.


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