There’s a basic formula to most Christmas movies: some negative situation [a curmudgeonly person, adult stress, greed, etc.] + Christmas magic = main character remembers that what’s really important in life is family and being kind to all. Commence warm fuzzies. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year, The End.
Home Alone is a Christmas movie in that it sort of follows that basic formula. But that’s really about it. It also breaks a lot of Christmas rules.
The film does an exceptionally good job at setting up the negative situation, preparing for the contrast at the end. There is always going to be some message about the importance of family at the end of a Christmas movie, and it’s clear at the beginning that the family and Kevin do not value each other. In fact, it’s not just older siblings and cousins, but parents, aunts, and uncles who are also extraordinarily mean to 8-year-old Kevin. He’s mean right back, and thinks he’s successfully wished them out of existence when they accidentally leave him behind on their Paris trip. It’s the rancor that’s extraordinary here for a Christmas movie. Sure, the Grinch can be cantankerous, but a whole family? And at Christmas? It immediately takes away the security that one generally finds in Christmas movies.
Then, Joe Pesci’s character shows up, a burglar masquerading as a cop. In Christmas movies, good guys are supposed to be good guys, period. Not so in this case.
Saying that the negative situations are solved by Christmas magic is a little bit of a stretch. Kevin finds “Santa Claus” [he knows he is not the real Santa Claus] and tells him he doesn’t want anything for Christmas except his family back. But Santa Claus doesn’t really have anything to do with the resolution. How could he? He’s too busy smoking, trying to drive his shitty little car, and being late to “a little get-together.”
It can’t even be said that the warm fuzzies at the end of the movie are the result of any Christmas magic. Of course a family is going to be overjoyed to see each other after everyone accidentally left the youngest member on the other side of an ocean. There was no magic that made that happen: just plane ticket bargaining and a long ride across the Midwest with a Polka band.
The burglars get their comeuppance at the end, but Santa Claus can’t claim that victory, either. It’s all Kevin and his ingenious booby traps. Which brings me to my central point: as far as Christmas movies go, Home Alone is pretty violent. I’ll go as far as to say the most violent Christmas movie except for Die Hard, if you count that as a Christmas movie [I’m on the fence about it]. I sound a little like an old lady, but as much as I like Home Alone, it’s actually the first hour and fifteen minutes I like. Once Keven blows out the fancy candles over his mac and cheese dinner [and am I the only one who is annoyed that he never takes even a bite of his highly nutritious, microwavable macaroni and cheese dinner?] I’m all cringes. Buster Keaton style slapstick is one thing; nails through the foot and blowtorches to the head-style slapstick is quite another.
Let’s count. The things that make Home Alone a Christmas movie: it takes place during Christmas, and there is a happy ending. The things that make it different than other Christmas movies: it’s violent, the events in the movie have very little to do with traditional Christmas values, and the resolution does not invoke Christmas magic in any way.
But that’s what makes it a great Christmas classic. It’s like a pop of slightly sour, acidic lemon cake on a table of overly-sweet Christmas desserts. It’s still sweet, it still has the flavor of Christmas, but it’s more bracing. Home Alone isn’t saccharine, but it does the job of a Christmas movie. Albeit a weird one.