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Movie Review: ‘Home Sweet Home Alone’ turns the franchise upside down

by Susan and Simon Veness

Slapstick comedy has been part of movie-making since the birth of celluloid, and it reached a peak in 1990 with Macaulay Culkin’s first outing in the “Home Alone” franchise. “Home Sweet Home Alone” takes it a step further.

Home Sweet Home Alone logo
Photos courtesy of Disney+

Trying to recreate the frantic comedy magic of “Home Alone” has been hit-and-miss through four subsequent outings of the “left-alone-at-Christmas-with-bad-guys” theme, hitting a fairly rough rock bottom in 2012 with “Home Alone: The Holiday Heist,” which was almost universally panned.

Now, 20th Century Studios believes the time is right to risk another episode of this knockabout series, with “Home Sweet Home Alone,” due for release exclusively on Disney+ on Nov. 12.

And, for a change, the echoes of Kevin McCallister’s original uproarious antics have not been lost on the newest film-makers to tackle this iconic seasonal set piece.

Led by director Dan Mazer, who cut his production teeth working with Oscar-winner Sacha Baron Cohen on his Ali G and Borat creations, and with a script created by “Saturday Night Live” alums Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell, the sixth and latest “Home Alone” movie aims to turn the basic premise upside down.

Max Mercer played by Archie Yates
Archie Yates as Max in “Home Sweet Home Alone,” exclusively on Disney+.
Photo by Philippe Bosse.

Instead of the focus being on the kid who is (inevitably) left home alone, Day and Seidell have opted to turn the spotlight on the “bad guys,” who this time are a truly hapless husband-and-wife duo, down on their financial luck and desperate to save their own home.

And, rather than committed home-breaking felons, they are ill-advised home-breaking novices on the trail of a precious heirloom that promises to be their fiscal salvation.

The couple, Jeff and Pam McKenzie, are played by Rob Delaney, who boasts a long career in TV comedy as well as action films “Deadpool 2” and “Hobbs & Shaw,” and Ellie Kemper, best known for her starring roles in the “Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt” Netflix series and movie.

Of course, there has to be a new version of Culkin’s Kevin McCallister character, and this role falls to British child actor Archie Yates, fresh from a featured part in the extraordinary 2019 Oscar-nominated “JoJo Rabbit” by Taika Waititi (as all fans of “The Mandalorian” will know).

Archie plays the smart-talking Max Mercer with a mix of cheek and charm, as well as the required ruthless streak when it comes to torturing the ill-fated home invaders, and the audience may be in two minds when it comes to cheering for the precocious kid or the would-be larcenists.

Max's battle plan
Photo by courtesy of Disney+

Max’s dialogue includes the sure-to-be-repeated protest that, “Do the math — six soda refills into one tiny 10-year-old bladder does not go,” which, handily, provides the necessary bathroom break that opens the door to all the mayhem to follow.

A well-rounded cast also features Irish comedienne Aisling Bea, as Max’s distraught mother, Carol, and SNL’s Kenan Thompson, adding his proven comedic chops as the McKenzies’ over- eager realtor.

The movie has additionally been updated for the Uber/Instagram/Alexa generation, while some clever Easter eggs have been sprinkled in for die-hard fans, along with an element of open self-parody, notably when Jeff’s brother Hunter complains, “I don’t know why they are always trying to re-make the classics.”

Perhaps the best gag, though, is the one that is sure to impress “Home Alone” aficionados most, with a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek cameo appearance by Devin Ratray. Kevin’s original big brother, Buzz, is now all grown up, and working as a policeman doing the rounds of the Mercer’s neighborhood, and his references to the first two movies are delightfully on point.

Most of the heavy lifting in acting terms falls to Delaney and Kemper to make their characters both sympathetic and slightly crazed, and they veer from almost inert to practically cartoonish in their efforts to fulfill the essential slapstick and numerous pratfalls that underlie the series.

Their attempts to climb over a simple garden wall are a notable moment in physical farce, but just the forerunner to a more predictable array of increasingly painful appointments with Max’s booby traps.

Pam and Jeff McKenzie
Ellie Kemper as Pam and Rob Delaney as Jeff in “Home Sweet Home Alone,” exclusively on Disney+.
Photo courtesy of Disney+

Ultimately, though, most of the cast will be judged directly against their forerunners in this now 31-year-old franchise, and the big question is, does Max live up to expectations as the new Kevin, and how do Jeff and Pam compare to the Wet Bandits?

The answer is not so simple. Yates, as Max, isn’t asked to be as memorably hyper as Culkin’s Kevin, and there are fewer characters for him to bounce off (he does have a sister, but she largely melts into the background, unlike the superbly overbearing Buzz and the rest of the manic McCallister clan).

He is also a more smug and worldly wise 10-year-old than the 1990 vintage, and his parents’ awful realization of the fact he has been left home alone lacks the drama and pathos that imbues the original. The “home” in question this time is likewise much more two-dimensional than the complex dwellings Culkin inhabited.

Home Sweet Home Alone's Max Mercer
Photo by Philippe Bosse

Delaney and Kemper aren’t given the chance to be as menacing as the Bandits, but they are equally hopeless when it comes to seeing a trap right in front of their faces, and viewers will either grin or groan at the subsequent punishment they take.

The movies’ fundamental redemption story is definitely given a new twist in this latest incarnation, but the only genuine moments of heart-tugging drama arrive with the melody of John Williams’ Academy-nominated original score in the background, and they feel a bit cheap.

Bea is far less of a motherly whirlwind than Catherine O’Hara’s Kate McCallister and, while she definitely channels her inner Julie Walters (albeit as a younger version of the multi award-winning British actress and comedienne), there is less emotional punch when it comes to reuniting with her lonesome son.

The story craftily jumps into the future to give the audience a big send-off, and that is sure to spark plenty of debate about the pros and cons of this sixth version of the franchise.

Happily, it leaves “The Holiday Heist” trailing in last place as a dismal outlier of movie-making miscalculations, even as it struggles to reach any of the real heights of the original.

Fans of simple slapstick comedy probably won’t mind much, though. When it comes to honest-to-goodness, brain-out-of-gear holiday film-watching fun, this will tick the box for a lot of people. But let’s all agree that six is quite enough homes to be alone in for some time to come.

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Home Sweet Home Alone | Official Trailer | Disney+

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