Over the course of more than 30 years and five films, the “Home Alone” franchise has mostly failed to recapture the magic and charm of Chris Columbus’ 1990 original, and the latest entry into this seemingly bomb-proof franchise — the awkwardly titled “Home Sweet Home Alone” — continues that pattern, even with plenty of good intentions. Dan Mazer’s film is the closest yet the series has come to a true remake, focusing on one plucky kid, two crazed robbers, and a Christmastime backdrop engineered to make anyone feel warm and fuzzy, but despite a classic blueprint, the end result is grinchy, grouchy, and just plain odd.
Most of that weirdness is baked right into the film’s basic premise, which dares to ask: What if our plucky kid was kind of a jerk? And what if our crazed robbers actually had a good reason for committing crimes? And what if this family-friendly comedy included jokes about O.J. Simpson’s checkered past? What follows is an uneven mishmash, the most ill-planned holiday potluck, as “Home Sweet Home Alone” attempts to balance protagonists and antagonists, good guys and bad guys, adult humor and kiddie stuff, all topped with plenty of winks at the first film.
The confusion kicks in early, as “Home Sweet Home Alone” opens in a cute suburban Chicago home inhabited by a delightfully daffy family, including mom Pam (Ellie Kemper) and dad Jeff (Rob Delaney). Alas, this is not the home of the title, and it’s also not (exactly) the family we’re meant to be invested in. These are…the bad guys? Well, sort of. Strapped for cash, Pam and Jeff are attempting to sell their house — brace for innumerable jokes about Jeff’s stagnant IT career — but they don’t want their kids to know, all the better to allow them one last happy holiday in the abode. (Kenan Thompson appears as their real estate agent, just one of many comedic talents who drop in for tiny roles, including Chris Parnell, Pete Holmes, Timothy Simons, and Ally Maki.)
Across town, whiny Max (“Jojo Rabbit” standout Archie Yates) and his addled mom Carol (Aisling Bea) are scrambling to prepare for a massive family trip to Tokyo. Wicked chance lands the pair at an open house at Pam and Jeff’s place — Max needs to pee, Carol sees a free bathroom — where the wisecracking kiddo and a stressed out Jeff almost instantly lock horns. If this sounds bizarre, it’s because it is: Jeff and Max (and Carol and Pam) are all exceedingly normal people, and while screenwriters Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell (long-time professional partners who landed at “SNL” in 2014) attempt to paint each of these characters as both sympathetic and a little annoying, that kind of character grace doesn’t particularly land here.
And we’re still not quite to the weirdest bits. Hell, we’re not even through the film’s first ten minutes. As Max and Jeff circle each other, we’re all introduced to a box of truly hideous dolls — to explain how the dolls enter the story is fruitless, boring, and unnecessary, the dolls are just there — which Carol instantly recognizes contains a single doll that is worth the big bucks, thanks to her obsession with a show that’s apparently some sort of “Antiques Roadshow” knockoff. Through a startling amount of both exposition and misdirection, Pam and Jeff eventually come to believe that young Max has stolen the doll. Meanwhile, Max and Carol are back home, flooded with annoying relatives and waning holiday cheer, with “Home Sweet Home Alone” finally tapping into the energy and wackiness of “Home Alone,” at least for a bit. (The film undoubtedly exists in the same universe as the first film, though a subplot explaining that is quickly dropped.)
Still, there is more plot. In classic “Home Alone” fashion, Max’s family departs for Tokyo without him, and while that initially seems like fun for the kid — cue the montage of Max eating a lot of candy, playing with his favorite toys, reading his sister’s diary, all the good stuff — we are also acutely aware that he’s bound for some sort of “family is the meaning of Christmas” reckoning. Meanwhile, Jeff has decided the only way to save his family’s home is to steal back the ugly doll that Max definitely, surely, for whatever reason, absconded with. How convenient than the house is empty, the family is gone, and even dim-witted Jeff has figured out a way inside! Oh, but ho ho ho, Merry Christmas, he has not yet realized that Max is still there. What mirth is to come!
Anyone familiar with “Home Alone” will see what’s approaching from a mile away, and “Home Sweet Home Alone” is actually at its most charming when leaning into those expected beats. That includes not just the emotional stakes of the film, but the gags that Max cooks up to keep Pam and Jeff (who he believes are actually up to something far more nefarious than, uh, breaking into the home of a terrified child to get an ugly doll to keep them financially solvent) at bay. All the classics are there: blunt objects to the head, swinging sacks of flour, LEGO pieces.
At one point, one of the film’s many supporting characters laments Hollywood’s affection for remaking the classics to stultifying results. It’s the sort of self-reflexive gag that attempts to paper over the thinness of this, yes, stultifying remake. Funnily enough, the elements that most liberally pull from the original “Home Alone” are somehow the most rewarding on offer in “Home Sweet Home Alone,” but will likely lead audiences to simply watch that one instead. They should. Sometimes, the original really is the best.
“Home Sweet Home Alone” starts streaming on Disney+ on Friday, November 12.