For 12 days leading up to Christmas, I will be reviewing 12 Christmas-themed films from across the many decades of film. These will not, however, be your ordinary movie reviews. These will be Social Impact Reviews, providing insight into the various ways several beloved films, cult classics, and new faves have potentially made an impact on viewers like you! My research (for a PhD in political science) looks at the impact of fictional, entertainment media on social, political, and policy attitudes. This set of holiday-themed reviews is my first foray into sharing my research with the public – you! And what better way to start than with holiday favorites?
This 1990 kids’ movie held up surprisingly well over the last 30 years. I’m almost curious to see just how many movies today follow a similar formula where a young kid outwits the bad guys using an array of booby traps and clever tricks. If you ignore the fact that absolutely everyone in this movie is white and the two bad guys are an Italian American and a ginger, it’s fun for the whole family, right? Well, mostly.
We establish pretty quickly that the entire family is very stressed getting ready for their trip to Paris for the holidays. I know I spent a solid minute wondering how on earth they justified buying tickets for the entire family to Paris over Christmas – four first class tickets for the adults and seven economy tickets for the kids? But, in true movie fashion, they never quite explain just how wealthy the McCallisters are, nor is it actually a plot point in any way. I’m just a broke Ph.D. candidate who misses Paris.
We’re also exposed to the many personalities of the McCallister family: from 8-year-old Kevin, our protagonist played by Macaulay Culkin and who seems to be a constant annoyance to his older siblings and cousins, to Kevin’s older brother Buzz who picks on Kevin and has a pet tarantula, and from weird Uncle Frank who seems to do pretty much whatever he wants, to Kevin’s parents who are extremely frazzled. Having grown up the only child in a single-parent household, this level of family stress and pestering is somewhat foreign to me. Distasteful, even. However, I’m assured by many that their teasing, anxiety, and sometimes gross behavior is to be expected of a large family with several boys. Even Kevin’s horrible statement to his mother that he wishes he didn’t have a family, I’m told, is a relatively normal occurrence.
What is not a normal occurrence, however, is when the McCallisters awake late, rush to the airport, and only realize while they’re crossing the Atlantic that they’ve left little Kevin at home. Alone. The mother panics, and the father tries to soothe her. The mother, Kate McCallister played by Catherine O’Hara, pushes and shoves and begs her way back from Paris to Dallas to Scranton. When she can’t get a flight to Chicago from there, a polka band takes pity on Kate and lets her hitch a ride in their van, dropping her home in Chicago on their way further west. (Small shout-out to the great John Candy as polka king Gus Polinski!)
I say all that to get to the part where, after three days of travel with no sleep, Kate finally makes it home to her young son. They have all of 15 minutes together before the rest of Kevin’s family walks through the front door, having taken the advice of their original airline to wait three days for the next flight out. There are two main messages here, the first being that airline attendants really do know what they’re talking about. If they tell you the best route home is to wait another day for the next open flight, they’re telling you the truth. The second implication here is that logical, calm men will get the same result as frantic, hysterical women. Yes, it’s a stretch, but it’s there. This “men are calm and women are hysterical” message starts real early in our society, and little, fictional scenarios like this one pile on that normalization!
The easier social impact target of the movie comes from Kevin’s reaction to the thieves, Harry and Marv, played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. What is Kevin’s reaction, you ask? To shoot them. That’s right, folks, even an 8-year-old turns first to guns as the main form of home defense! Another reason castle laws get so much support. When he hears the thieves say they will come back at 9:00, Kevin turns his home into a warzone. He ices the outside steps, glues nails point-up outside the back door, and heats the front doorknob to sear anyone’s hand who tries to use it. Once Harry and Marv get inside, Kevin sends paint cans flying at their heads, escapes out the window on a zip line, and cuts the line when the thieves try to follow him. It’s vicious. I suppose Kevin did not tell an adult about his situation for a variety of reasons that make sense to an 8-year-old, but it’s still pretty violent.
The explicit message imparted in the film comes from an elderly neighbor the kids see shoveling snow at the beginning of the film. Ever the older brother, Buzz tells Kevin this kind man is a serial killer who hides bodies in his street salt bin. The terrified kid runs more than once from this man throughout the film, at one point accidentally shoplifting a toothbrush in the process. Near the end of movie, the man approaches young Kevin in a church, where his granddaughter is in the choir. Talking with Kevin, we learn this man is Mr. Marley. He argued with his son many years before, and they haven’t spoken since. At Kevin’s encouragement, by the end of the film that Mr. Marley and his son have reconciled. It’s a touching message about forgiveness and how family can be complicated no matter your age. And the excellent implicit message of this connection is that you cannot judge a person by what people tell you about them.
Other implied messages: sometimes cops are really robbers, be careful what you wish for, always double-check your count, and every parent messes up at some point – especially men in polka bands.
In sum, it’s a kids’ movie with slapstick comedy and messages of family importance. It kind of encourages kids to use violence against invaders, which may or may not be something parents want their kids to learn. I mean, the perpetrators were more than ready to use violence against Kevin. Still, it’s probably worth taking some time after the movie to talk with your kids about the appropriate times to use a BB gun or put a tarantula on someone’s face.