With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

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By the time the Home Alone series reached its fourth installment, no one from the original film’s creative team was on board. No John Hughes screenplay. No Christopher Columbus direction. No Daniel Stern, Joe Pesci, Catherine O’Hara, John Heard, or Macaulay Culkin in the cast. And yet even though 1997’s Home Alone 3 had introduced entirely new characters, 2002’s Home Alone 4 (sometimes subtitled Taking Back The House) was inexplicably presented as in-continuity with the first two movies; once again, a grade-school-aged kid named Kevin McCallister found himself thwarting a home invasion by a crook named Marv. It had been 12 years since the first movie became a surprise blockbuster hit, but the producers of part four apparently figured the “child outsmarts criminals with elaborate booby traps” premise was no longer enough of a selling point. They assumed audiences were deeply invested in the ongoing saga of the McCallisters.

This has always been one of the funkiest, most fascinating aspects of franchise filmmaking: What does a company do when it owns a valuable property, but doesn’t understand why people liked it in the first place? 20th Century Fox has never seemed to get why audiences flocked to Home Alone back in 1990 (so many, in fact, that the movie topped the box office for three straight months), nor why they came back in droves for the equally successful Home Alone 2 in 1992. So the three subsequent sequels have had a tough time answering a simple question: What does “a Home Alone movie” actually mean?

The first two Home Alones are the only two that are any good, and both owe their success to three people. The first is Macaulay Culkin. The main reason why the image of Culkin clutching his cheeks and screaming into the camera has been burned into the memories of nearly everyone who was alive back in 1990 is because of one short scene in a movie released the year before. In John Hughes’ genteel 1989 family comedy Uncle Buck—one of his most underrated films—Culkin plays an 8-year-old who grills John Candy’s title character, Dragnet-style, when the uncle shows up in his kitchen one morning unexpectedly. Both actors’ comic timing and fundamental adorability, compressed within a single minute of screen time, was so delightful that the exchange became the anchor for the Uncle Buck trailer, and convinced Hughes that Culkin could anchor a major motion picture.

In retrospect, Culkin looks to be a little in over his head in the first Home Alone. As Kevin—the neglected middle child of a big, upper-middle-class Chicago family—Culkin either pouts in monotone or mugs shamelessly. His main assets as an actor are that he’s cute and that he projects just enough vulnerability to make him easier to root for when his parents accidentally leave him at home during their Paris vacation. Like a lot of the heroes in Hughes’ movies, Kevin is an underestimated underdog who flourishes under pressure—in this case, when his house is under siege by burglars.

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Home Alone 2: Lost In New York isn’t as tightly constructed or as simply entertaining as its predecessor, but in just two years Culkin had matured a lot as a screen presence and gives a stronger performance overall, mixing preadolescent brattiness with an almost supernatural savvy. The plot’s more ridiculous. This time, Kevin’s Miami-bound parents don’t notice that their son has gotten on a plane to the Big Apple—where, in a strange coincidence, he runs into the same guys who tried to rob his house a couple of years ago. But the star looks a lot more comfortable playing a human cartoon the second time around.

An early poster for Home Alone 2: Lost In New York

The second key player in Home Alone and Home Alone 2 is Joe Pesci. Yes, two actors played “the wet bandits” (and later “sticky bandits”). But back in 1990, no one could’ve known that they were witnessing the start of a too-short-lived golden age for one our best character actors. A year after he made a memorable supporting turn in Lethal Weapon 2, Pesci appeared in both Home Alone and Goodfellas, winning an Oscar for the latter. For the next eight years he took on a variety of roles—many of them leads—and then, abruptly, more or less quit the business. His Home Alone partner Daniel Stern, meanwhile, spent a lot of the ’90s capitalizing on his newfound fame by playing comic relief and slapstick parts, before retreating back into his pre-1990 “reliable bit player” mode in the 21st century.

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Stern’s more than fine in his two Home Alones, but his single-minded Marv isn’t as well-rounded a character as Pesci’s Harry, who goes about his business with an air of genuine menace (especially in the second film, where he looks ready and willing to murder Kevin). This is hardly Pesci’s best performance—for that, look to Goodfellas or, believe it or not, My Cousin Vinny—but it does combine the two styles he did best. He’s an amusing motormouth and a dangerous thug. There’s a reason why the fourth Home Alone hired a new actor (French Stewart) to play Marv, but not Harry. Pesci is irreplaceable.

And then there’s John Hughes. In retrospect, Home Alone was both the best and worst thing to happen to Hughes. After spending the 1980s establishing himself first as a maestro of the disreputable high school comedy genre and then as a potential heir to Preston Sturges and Frank Capra with his more adult-oriented Planes, Trains And Automobiles, Hughes reportedly knocked out the Home Alone screenplay in less than 10 days and handed it off to his friend Chris Columbus to direct. The movie’s massive box office meant that the money-conscious, blue-collar-oriented Hughes migrated into generating broad, bland kiddie fare for most of the rest of his career, failing to follow up on his creative breakthroughs of the late ’80s.

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Columbus did a competent job with the first two Home Alones—especially when compared to the directors who followed him—but the films really have Hughes’ heart. His unabashed sentimentality, sympathy for overlooked misfits, and willingness to abandon realism altogether for the sake of a good laugh are what make the first two movies work. The first one is such an ingenious cinematic contraption, playing off of every kid’s fantasies and fears of having the house to him or herself. The second picture then expands “house” to “entire city.” The sequel extends the scenes of Kevin battering Harry and Marv with homemade weapons and lets them go for way too long, turning the clever Rube Goldberg gimmicks of the original into something as exhaustingly violent as a Three Stooges marathon. But it also captures the enchantment of New York at Christmastime, especially for a little boy with a credit card and no curfew.

Hughes also wrote the script for Home Alone 3, a film that Roger Ebert considered the best of the initial trilogy—which only goes to show that even the smartest of critics can be wrong, wrong, wrong. As popular as the first two Home Alones were at the time, their reputation in the decades since has suffered for a variety of reasons, from being so ubiquitous in the early ’90s that everyone got sick of them to the way Culkin’s turbulent subsequent life and career has made it less fun to watch his younger self. (Also, Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2 isn’t as cute as it used to be, for some reason.) But all it takes is one look at Home Alone 3 to feel warmly nostalgic for that brief, magical time the series was at least watchable.

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Home Alone 3 is the directorial debut of Raja Gosnell, an editor on the first two films, who’d soon become the go-to helmer for terrible franchises like Scooby-Doo and The Smurfs. Made five years after Lost In New York, the movie is a soft reboot, ditching the wet/sticky bandits and the McCallister family altogether and starting over with another set of well-to-do Chicago suburbanites, another band of villains, and another precocious kid. Alex D. Linz plays Alex Pruitt, a shaggy-haired, scratchy-voiced moppet who accidentally ends up in possession of a top-secret military computer chip, smuggled inside of a remote-controlled car. A quartet of international secret agents tracks the toy down, forcing Alex to defend his home (and his country!) with the help of his brother’s pet parrot and the usual assortment of ordinary household items.

The third film is interesting primarily because of the presence of a prefame Scarlett Johansson, in a minor role as Alex’s obnoxious big sister. Otherwise, it’s a joyless slog, as an exhausted Hughes—numbed by five straight years of pumping out pap like Beethoven, Dennis The Menace, Baby’s Day Out, and Flubber—spends forever setting up the inevitable boy vs. bad guys climax. His sole innovation is the spy angle, which allows Gosnell and composer Nick Glennie-Smith (taking over the previous films’ far superior John Williams) to throw in the occasional nod to James Bond movie scores. Everything else that distinguishes Home Alone 3 is purely era-specific or holds a morbid fascination, such as the crummy late-’90s alt-rock songs that pop up every now and then and the frequent jokes about guys getting walloped in their “winkies.”

The fourth and fifth Home Alones are slightly more palatable, perhaps because their very existence is so baffling that the audience could spend their refreshingly short running times just pondering the thought processes behind them. The aforementioned Home Alone 4: Taking Back The House is the most befuddling. Aside from the names of the characters and the occasional references to the first two movies, there’s really not a lot of connection between what happens in the fourth film and Kevin’s earlier adventures. So there was really no reason to make this another story about Kevin McCallister fending off an invasion by Marv (this time partnered with his wife, Vera, played by Missi Pyle). If anything, the attempt at continuity makes everything in the movie more awkward.

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The plot has Kevin (now a 9-year-old played by Mike Weinberg) spending Christmas in a technologically advanced mansion, belonging to the billionaire girlfriend of his father, who’s in the process of getting divorced from his mom. As likable as Catherine O’Hara and John Heard were as the parents in the first two films, the characters weren’t so indelible that they needed some kind of domestic turmoil subplot. The point at which somebody in development said, “What if the McCallisters were having marital problems?” was the point at which a cooler head should’ve stepped in. (Bringing back Marv is an even weirder move, raising all kinds of questions about the decision to ditch Harry and why nobody believes Kevin when he says that he’s being stalked by Marv when he’s been right twice before.)

The most original aspect of Home Alone 4 is the automated house, which ultimately becomes the movie’s weak spot, because the lo-fi, MacGyver-style DIY defenses of the earlier pictures are replaced by a lot of expensive toys and gadgets. The film originally aired on ABC in November of 2002, and the network’s money helped buy the production some fancy props and sets. But Kevin ultimately doesn’t get to do a lot with them. The big drama here is whether his dad will wise up and leave his super rich girlfriend to return to his merely upper-middle-class original family—and not, as it should’ve been, whether Kevin and his dad’s girlfriend’s snooty butler could foil Marv and Vera.

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Ten years later, when ABC Family revived the franchise for Home Alone: The Holiday Heist (with no “5” in the official title, strangely), the new team of creators had the smarts to scrap the McCallister angle altogether. The most recent film stars Christian Martyn as Finn Baxter, a 10-year-old in a family that moves from California to rural Maine, to the annoyance of Finn and his perpetually exasperated teenage sister, Alexis (Jodelle Ferland). Unbeknownst to the Baxters, their new house contains a rare Edvard Munch painting, which a master thief played by Malcolm McDowell had planned to swipe with his accomplices (Eddie Steeples and Debi Mazar) before the new occupants unexpectedly moved in. The gang waits until the family is due to attend a party thrown by Mrs. Baxter’s new boss (Ed Asner), but they don’t count on the bratty kids refusing to go with their folks, nor does anyone foresee the winter storm that effectively traps Finn and Alexis in their new home with the robbers.

Make no mistake: The Holiday Heist isn’t a good movie. The pacing is choppy, the score’s annoyingly omnipresent, the digital video looks cheap, and the name actors in the cast look eager to clock out and hit the nearest bar. The occasional Home Alone Easter eggs—like a comparison between Munch’s “The Scream” and Macaulay Culkin’s famous pose in the original—are more distracting than clever. And as with every other movie in the series, the hero’s level of maturity and intellect fluctuates, depending on whether he needs to be a scared little kid, a moody preadolescent, or some kind of improvisatory genius inventor.

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But the fifth film does grasp some things that the third and fourth missed, which is that the proper Hughes formula balanced inventive slapstick madness with a genuine sense of what it means to feel cut off from your loved ones. There’s an emotional arc that’s an important part of Home Alone and side characters who get the hero to understand what really matters in life. (Think of George Costanza in Seinfeld crying at the first movie because he was touched by the plight of Kevin’s lonely old man neighbor.) In The Holiday Heist, Alex befriends both the goofy kid next door and a college student he plays video games with online, and while his new allies help him devise and spring the coolest set of traps since Lost In New York, they also bring him around to the idea that he needs the kind of real human connection that he can’t get from playing video games.

At present there’s no announced plan for a Home Alone 6, though every now and then, some internet comedians create fake trailers or posters that imagine the story continuing with a now-adult Kevin McCallister (perhaps played by Culkin). What any potential follow-up really needs, though, is another filmmaker with the populist instincts and strong point of view of John Hughes. It was never Kevin’s plight per se that brought this series to life. It was that he wielded all of his elaborate gadgetry to keep him safe and alive long enough to get a second chance to let his family know he loved them. That’s a sappy message, sure. But without it, these movies are just like thugs getting clonked with paint cans: noisy, thudding, and headache-inducing.

Final ranking:

1. Home Alone (1990)
2. Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)
3. Home Alone: The Holiday Heist (2012)
4. Home Alone 4: Taking Back The House (2002)
5. Home Alone 3 (1997)

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