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Home Alone's enduring popularity, explained

I'm HOW old?!
I'm HOW old?!
20th Century Fox
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

The Christmas season is upon us, and for many who celebrate the holiday, December 25 involves opening presents, enjoying a big meal with family, and possibly recovering from a food coma with a viewing of a classic holiday movie. And for my money, nothing fits that bill than 1990's Home Alone, a heartwarming tale of neglectful parenting, budding sadism, and the true meaning of Christmas.

But just how has this particular film — which was produced on a relatively modest budget and garnered decidedly mixed reviews when it was released — remained a Christmas movie staple more than 25 years later?

Is it thanks to star Macaulay Culkin's impish charm? The eminently quotable lines ("Buzz, your girlfriend — woof!")? The blatant Pepsi product placement?

Here are four (mostly nonscientific) theories that explain Home Alone's enduring popularity*.

The movie was a huge commercial success with some big names behind it

Thanks to Home Alone's modern ubiquity, it's easy to forget that when it was originally released it was a massive, unequivocal hit. Produced on a budget of $15 million and released on Thanksgiving Day 1990, the movie spent 12 weeks in the No. 1 box office spot and grossed more than $470 million worldwide. Despite being released in November, it was the highest grossing film — by a nearly $70 million margin — in a year that also saw the releases of Ghost and Dances With Wolves (second and third place, respectively), as well as Pretty Woman, Total Recall, and Edward Scissorhands.

The 10 highest grossing movies of 1990 by domestic box office.
Screenshot via Box Office Mojo

Home Alone's success speaks to the tremendous behind-the-camera talent that elevated the film beyond "just a kids' movie" (to say nothing of its impressive cast). The script was by John Hughes, the grand poobah of iconic '80s movies, and though director Chris Columbus had helmed just two films prior to Home AloneAdventures in Babysitting, and the flop Heartbreak Hotel — Hughes was a fan of his work. Hughes first sent Columbus his script for National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, but Columbus found its star Chevy Chase so disagreeable he had to turn down the project. As he told Chicago Magazine in its fantastic oral history of Home Alone:

I went out to dinner with Chevy Chase [the movie’s star]. To be completely honest, Chevy treated me like dirt. But I stuck it out and even went as far as to shoot second unit [collecting establishing shots and special sequences, usually without principal actors]. Some of my shots of downtown Chicago are still in the movie. Then I had another meeting with Chevy, and it was worse. I called John [who was producing the film] and said, "There’s no way I can do this movie. I know I need to work, but I can’t do it with this guy."

Two weeks later, Hughes sent him the script for Home Alone.

The score for the film was equally serendipitous: Columbus had originally hired Bruce Broughton, but Broughton was too busy finishing his work on Rescuers Down Under to do Home Alone. So, as Columbus recounted to Entertainment Weekly, he asked Steven Spielberg, whom he'd known "for years," to put him in touch with legendary composer John Williams. Williams agreed to screen the film — and loved it. His score netted Home Alone two Oscar nominations, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song.

Perhaps it's the cabal of very American heavyweights behind the film that makes Home Alone such an enduring hit in Poland, as well. According to the Polish website, Home Alone captured the imaginations of Polish viewers at a time when "all things American were on object [sic] of worship," and the movie has since become a winter staple, with one in three Poles between 16 and 49 watching it around Christmastime.

It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy for kids (and their grown-up counterparts)

Kevin's gleeful statement, "I made my family disappear!" is just the one of the kiddie fantasies Home Alone fulfills. Sledding in the house, eating epically constructed ice cream sundaes for dinner, trespassing in your jerk older brother's room — our pint-size stand-in all of a sudden gets to do whatever he wants with seemingly zero repercussions. "Kevin's antics will touch the budding subversive in every kid," as the Washington Post promised in its official review.

The movie falters a bit when it chooses to squeeze in some moralizing, having Kevin’s adventure culminate in him learning to do laundry and shop for a sensible list of groceries. Still, there’s something so elementally satisfying about this story: Kevin is picked on, ridiculed, shunted to the side, and, finally, forgotten. He gets to prove not just that he can survive without his family, but that he can do extraordinary things when there's no one around to tell him he can't.

Thus, Home Alone is basically It’s A Wonderful Life in reverse, with everyone in Kevin’s life realizing Kevin’s worth even though he’s known it all along. It's a message that resonates with anyone of any age who's ever felt overlooked, ignored, or taken for granted — which is to say, everyone.

It tempers its feel-good message with a dark edge

Holiday-themed movies always face the risk of veering too far into saccharine sentimentality, but Home Alone cuts the sugar with a truly dark, disturbing undercurrent that becomes more apparent as the viewer leaves childhood further and further behind. The hurt Kevin doles out to Harry and Marv, which seems to young viewers like fitting punishment for bad guys, begin to feels needlessly cruel through the lens of adulthood.

Chicago native Rich Cohen put this well, explaining in Chicago Mag how his sympathies shifted as he aged, from heroic little Kevin to the hapless and mortally endangered Marv and Harry. "I’ve become sympathetic to the plight of the frail human body," he writes. "During some scenes, I think only of slow recovery, of the years spent in prison rehab, trying to get that knee to work again."

The Wet Bandits would have been lucky to end up in rehab — a great 2012 article from the Week consulted Dr. Ryan St. Clair of Weill Cornell Medical College on the extent of their many injuries and found Marv and Harry would probably not have been left alive, let alone standing, at the end of the film. Kevin unleashes the full force of his fury on the burglars, who, while not exactly upstanding citizens, are subjected to a battery of torture perhaps best reserved for a medieval dungeon. Of the scene where Marv gets hit in the face with a hot iron, St. Clair said:

Let's estimate the distance from the first floor to the basement at 15 feet, and assume the steam iron weighs 4 pounds. And note that the iron strikes Marv squarely in the mid-face. This is a serious impact, with enough force to fracture the bones surrounding the eyes. This is also known as a "blowout fracture," and can lead to serious disfigurement and debilitating double vision if not repaired properly.

The injuries would be severe enough, he said, that they indicate Kevin's booby traps crossed the line from self-defense into "sheer malice."

Making the film was almost as hazardous; according to Columbus, none of the stunts used CGI, and he and the crew were often nervous for the stunt performers. As he described to EW:

Even what seems simple, [like] the Joe Pesci character walking up the stairs of the front of the house and doing a back flip. I really thought Troy, our stunt man, had broken his back on that first take. As I said, until we knew those guys were alive and okay, none of that stuff was funny, so I was surprised once we put the film together how well it actually worked for an audience. The last 20 minutes of that movie, seeing it in a theater was unlike anything I had experienced as a filmmaker because people were just screaming with laughter.

The New York Times dubbed Home Alone "the first Christmas black comedy for children," and its slightly sadistic edge fits into a long tradition of Christmas horror/thrillers such as Krampus, Gremlins, Black Christmas, and more. Holiday stress can cause even the saintliest among us to consider parricide, and on a level, watching fictional characters get the everloving crap beaten out of them relieves tension and allows us to indulge our darkest thoughts with no consequences.

It was shot for maximum nostalgic impact

In his 1990 review of Home Alone, Roger Ebert wrote that the movie's scribe, John Hughes, "sometimes shows a genius for remembering what it was like to be young." The resulting feeling, perhaps more than anything else, is likely what accounts for the movie's staying power: From the set dressing to the lighting, Home Alone was literally made to inspire nostalgia.

As Clay Routledge, an associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, explained to me via email, holidays share "a common theme of nostalgia," and Home Alone's "emotional complexity" echoes the bittersweet feelings nostalgia invokes. Further, he says, "the protagonist of the film is a child and the movie is thus about his journey which may lead viewers to feel nostalgic for their own childhood experiences."

The filmmakers leaned into that possibility, deliberately composing shots to amplify the sensations of being a kid. Cinematographer Julio Macat told Chicago Mag:

We thought about every shot in terms of the point of view of the kid. Because of that, we used wider angles. The height of the camera was lower than you would normally have. Our ceilings were important, because we were looking up a lot. Because we thought that kids see everything in an amplified way, we made the lights in the house feel a little bit brighter. Everything was goosed up a notch. It’s kind of the reverse of when you go back to the house where you were raised and everything seems so small.

Those are some sparkly lights!
tp, home alone

Columbus said his aim was to make the McCallister house (now a Chicago-area tourist attraction) feel as natural and lived-in as possible:

I wanted it to feel timeless. I remember saying to my crew, "When this movie is on TV 20 years from now — now it’s been 25 years — I want it to feel fresh. I want it to feel like it was just made yesterday."

While "just made yesterday" is a stretch, it's fair to say that more than a quarter of a century later, Home Alone still does feel fresh. Its combination of slightly cruel humor and affectionate sweetness feels a little like hanging out with a prickly but loving relative — making it destined for many more decades of Christmas viewing.

*We only looked at the original Home Alone, because, well, it's the only one that really matters. Keep the change, ya filthy animal.

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