To the news of Disney’s plans to produce a remake of holiday classic Home Alone, director of the genuine article Chris Columbus had words sharper than a toy car on a bare foot. “It’s a waste of time, as far as I’m concerned,” Columbus said in a recent interview with Insider commemorating the 30th anniversary of the film’s release. “What’s the point? I’m a firm believer that you don’t remake films that have had the longevity of Home Alone. You’re not going to create lightning in a bottle again. It’s just not going to happen.”

Related: My favourite Christmas film: Home Alone

Setting aside the fact that he himself tried to rebottle that lightning by stranding Macaulay Culkin’s pint-size protector Kevin McCallister in New York for a sequel, Columbus is right. On paper, the $476m box-office bonanza shouldn’t have been anything special. The premise isn’t much more complex than a kid’s parents leaving for Christmas vacation without him, noticing that they have forgotten him, and then going home. And though everyone loves the hyper-violent hijinks, the script saves the main event for the final thirty minutes, hanging with young Kevin for about an hour before he must fend off the attacks of robbers Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. The following decades proved Columbus to be no great shakes as a film artist, either, his more noteworthy accomplishments limited to Mrs Doubtfire and the two weakest Harry Potter films. In a different time and place, with different personnel, with a slight difference in the blowing of the wind, it would’ve made the same impact as any other lightweight Yuletide confection.

Still, there’s something warmly indelible about Kevin’s inadvertent staycation, a feeling owed to the fortuitous collaboration between 10-year-old star Culkin and screenwriter John Hughes. The maestro of the ‘80s teen movie dreamt up the concept for the script with all the imagination of Jerry Seinfeld doing a tight five on air travel. “I was going away on vacation, and making a list of everything I didn’t want to forget,” he explained in an interview with Time. “I thought, ‘Well, I’d better not forget my kids.’ Then I thought, ‘What if I left my 10-year-old son at home? What would he do?’” In the hands of the usual hacks running today’s kiddie cinema, this could’ve been a cutesy look at one hooligan living large without supervision, but Hughes has always shone brightest by shrinking the distance between being a child and grown-up.

His high-schooler creations got caught between their last gasps of youth and the earliest perilous brushes with adulthood, a tension back-shifted here to Kevin’s age bracket. Like Ferris Bueller before him, Kevin takes the lack of oversight as a chance to enjoy the finer things that the rest of the world says he’s not old enough for. Without Mom and Dad around to cramp his style, he gets the classically Hughesian first taste of sexuality, except that young Kevin reacts with prepubescent disgust at the centerfold in his big brother’s forbidden Playboy mags. His is a juvenile impression of maturity, savvy enough to know that homeowners have wine glasses with dinner and boyish enough to fill his to the brim with milk. He knows that aftershave is a thing to be used, but no matter how many times he slaps it onto his face, he’s never ready for how badly it stings.

The whole “kid clomping around in dad’s oversize shoes” bit can only go so far, too saccharine to sustain an entire movie without wearing thin. Hughes was able to keep it going for 100 minutes due to the singular talents of Macaulay Culkin, just hitting what the rising actor couldn’t have envisioned would be the height of his fame. His difficulty with gaining a foothold in Hollywood as an adult following his self-imposed acting break was due in part to how preternaturally good he was at being little, having struck the perfect balance between precocity and innocence. The image of him in the bathroom, hands clasped to either side of his screaming face like a caricatured Munch painting, had been imprinted on the public consciousness.

In the role of Kevin, he’s self-sufficient to the point of comedy, evoking the Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoons as he jerry-rigs his home full of excruciating traps to ward off the intruders lying in wait. Cute yet capable, he knows how to sell the behavior and vernacular of his parents without realizing that it only makes him seem like a novelty act. He’s so matter-of-fact about repeating the ad-speak he’s surely heard on a commercial, his voiceover narration stating that “I washed my hair with adult-formula shampoo and used cream rinse for that just-washed shine,” unaware that nothing makes a child seem younger than trying to sound older. The best he can do is absorb and parrot back parts of the world around him, repeating the line “keep the change, ya filthy animal” after hearing it on TV in a gangster picture aping Angels with Dirty Faces.

The emotional foundation of the film reveals itself when Kevin drops the act and succumbs to the parts of his personality still age-appropriate. To his not-fully-formed mind, the travel mix-up was a result of his monkey’s paw wish to never see any of them again, one of those hurtful things children say without meaning it. He’s stinging from the very real feeling of being constantly in the way while visiting family takes over the home, and the plot serves to remind him (all of us, really) of how much we value the people who drive us crazy. A sentimental subplot in which Kevin helps his neighbor connect with the man’s estranged son lays it on thick – unsurprisingly, this was added to Hughes’ script by Columbus, who felt the film needed more heart – but the message remains the same. Even if having loved ones in town for the holidays creates stress, it also nourishes the soul. His mother, on her fraught journey home with a John Candy-led polka band, accepts the related wisdom that she must cherish the kindness of strangers, no matter how annoying.

Like Scrooge before him, Kevin’s woes get erased in time for his change of heart; when his mother, played by Catherine O’Hara, returns at last, Kevin runs tearfully into her arms. Redemption and lesson-learning come with the territory when making a Christmas movie, shrunk here to a size comprehensible to all viewers past the toddler years. Every kid has imagined their parents away at some point or another, whether aloud or privately. Kevin just had the misfortune for his wish to come true, with the good luck of being uniquely suited to the challenge. With Culkin’s deep-set eyes, in turns knowing and wide with naivety, and the finely calibrated dialogue from Hughes, an ordinary idea ripened into the best possible version of itself. If that’s not Christmas magic, what is?

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