1.5 out of 5 stars

Remaking festive favourite Home Alone (1990) comes with risks its own immediate sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), stumbled on, let alone the three non-theatrical movies that followed. Fundamentally, it’s a simple premise that doesn’t lend itself well to repetition, so all that’s ever on offer is variations on the concept of a child being left home alone and having to defend their house from burglars using ingenious booby-traps. Now, Disney+ have revived the franchise for a straightforward “remake” (although one cameo suggests this is technically a sequel to Home Alone 2, following new characters), but Home Sweet Home Alone’s tweaks to the formula cause it avoidable problems.

Home Sweet Home Alone again involves a rich Chicago family who go on Christmas vacation (to Japan not Europe), leaving one of their children behind in the rush to the airport. This time our little hero Max Mercer (Archie Yates) is English, for no discernible reason, making me presume Yates just couldn’t do an American accent. His despairing mother Carol (Aisling Bea) is played by an Irish comedian, perhaps only asked to do an English accent to help explain Max’s voice, but this only causes added dissonance for UK viewers accustomed to hearing Bea’s lilting Irish brogue.

Written by Saturday Night Live alums Mikey Day and Street Seidell, the film’s biggest attempt to avoid repeating Home Alone too much comes with their approach to the “villains”. Rather than continue the tradition of the previous five films, Home Sweet Home Alone actually spends more time with the antagonists than Max himself, making it clear they are sympathetic parents and not criminals. Pam (Ellie Kemper) and her husband Jeff McKenzie (Rob Delaney) almost exist in an update of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), having to entertain wealthy and obnoxious relatives that have come to stay for the holidays, during a time when they’re secretly trying to sell their house and downsize owing to financial strife. After a convoluted sequence of events, Jeff realises he owns a rare doll worth $200,000, but suspects it’s been stolen by Max during a home-viewing they were having when he stopped by with his mother. And so, with the Mercer’s jetting off to Japan, the McKenzie’s decide to break into their house to steal back their valuable heirloom, unaware Max has been left behind and is ready to protect himself with a variety of traps and projectiles.

This major change to the Home Alone template causes needless damage. In making the McKenzie’s a relatable and likeable married couple, with everything happening to them boiling down to misunderstandings and dumb decisions, it robs the movie of any fun in seeing them get crippled and humiliated by Max. And by focusing so much on Pam and Jeff, it makes this movie more about them in a lot of ways, meaning Max comes across as a kid whose behaviour you can’t rally behind the same way. He’s not up against two genuine burglars who might cause him physical harm, however cartoonishly those roles were played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in the earlier films, but just a middle-aged couple whose emotional plight we’re more invested in than his own. And when you’re hoping the intruders avoid getting injured and shake some sense into Max (who’s a thief denying them a life-changing fortune in their eyes), something’s gone terribly wrong!

One can only assume Disney insisted the new villains be sympathetic this time around, or that —God have mercy— the original Home Alone is now seen as too edgy for modern kids to handle. The violence is heavily diluted, being mostly people slipping over or tumbling down stairs, with none of the eye-wincing reactions to things from the original — like treading barefoot on a nail, or having your hair blow-torched off. There’s even a brain-meltingly stupid moment where Jeff is unaware he’s wearing VR goggles and becomes convinced he’s been transported to a mountain top, which encapsulates the stupidity of this film’s approach.

There are a few moments that work decently (mostly because Delaney and Kemper admirably throw themselves into their roles), but part of the genius with Home Alone is how the traps were more brutal than one might have expected. It helped make the movie entertaining for grown-ups (who got to see Goodfellas psycho Joe Pesci whacked in the face by a paint can), while delighting kids who knew they were experiencing something a touch beyond Wile E. Coyote blowing himself up with TNT.

Another issue is that the story dedicates such little time to Max, which is crazy considering the original gave us a star-making turn from Macaulay Culkin and most of the film was spent in his company. Home Sweet Home Alone does a quick montage of Max enjoying the lack of parental oversight, has him briefly visit church (a scene that only exists so the McKenzie’s can misidentify an old woman as his live-in German grandmother), and then gets into the DIY home security shenanigans. There’s not a great deal for Max to do otherwise, which is bewildering after casting a decent child star in Archie Yates (Jojo Rabbit) who could have handled something more challenging. You don’t even get the sense Max is overlooked by his large family, which is such a basic part of the setup that director Chris Columbus achieved in the opening scene of the 1990 version.

British director Dan Mazer (Dirty Grandpa) goes through the motions here, leaving no personal stamp on things. Intended to be a seasonal offering on Disney+, where it’ll mainly chalk up views from middle-aged folk too curious to avoid seeing a new version of something from their childhood, Home Sweet Home Alone has the feel of something aiming for competency more than anything truly cinematic. It’s all rather small-scale and “TV Movie” in style and execution — the story even skips seeing the Mercer family at the airport in a mad rush, as filming on location would be a huge undertaking, so things instead just cut to an establishing shot of downtown Tokyo before we’re on a set. Aisling Bea has little to work with either, considering Catherine O’Hara’s character enjoyed a fun subplot trying desperately to get home (with the help of John Candy). Bea just gets a quick comedy sketch aboard a plane involving a rude passenger.

There are some positives, of course: the Christmas vibe is relatively strong thanks to the picturesque suburb of snow-coated streets and houses; composer John Debney (The Passion of the Christ) pretty much plays most of John Williams’ memorable tracks from Home Alone; Kemper is good and proves adept at all the physical comedy; it does a decent job explaining some of the flaws with the premise (the Mercer’s don’t know their next-door neighbours yet, there’s no internet connection or land-line, Max doesn’t have a phone they can call him on); and I enjoyed seeing Devin Ratray reprise his role as bullying Buzz from the original films, who’s grown-up to become a cop convinced all Christmas “home alone” reports are his little brother Kevin pranking him. There are other nods to the first movie in various lines, and even an update of the fake film noir Angels with Filthy Souls to camp sci-fi — although it has no similar role to play in what Max gets up to at home.

Home Sweet Home Alone sounded like a bad idea when it was announced, looked like a worse one from the trailer, and proves to be an entirely pointless exercise. Home Alone is also available on Disney+, so why even bother with this beyond curiosity or a hate-watch? Nevertheless, it’s the best sequel since Lost in New York because the bar has been set that low, and it might have been palatable if they’d cranked up the violence (exploding fizzy drink bottles doesn’t cut it), and made the villains into comically despicable people you want to see get taught a lesson by a precocious kid who goes Rambo with his toy box.

USA | 2021 | 93 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Dan Mazer.
writers: Mikey Day & Streeter Seidell (story by Mikey Day, Streeter Seidell & John Hughes; based on ‘Home Alone’ by John Hughes).
starring: Ellie Kemper, Rob Delaney, Archie Yates, Aisling Bea, Kenan Thompson, Pete Holmes, Ally Maki & Chris Parnell.