The complete Home Alone retrospective: Home Alone 4: Taking Back The House

The first Home Alone film to skip cinemas. Home Alone 4, though, had problems on its hands. Not least recasting the original roles...

Spoilers lie ahead.

I’m not familiar with what happened to the Home Alone rights between 1997 and 2002, but it’s fair to say that – a decade on from the original – anyone remotely interested in watching a Home Alone sequel will have moved on to whatever older teenagers were into back in 2002. MP3 players and Chemsex or whatever. But surely there’s always a fresh stream of children who might want to revel in the action and comedy of a Home Alone movie? Well, no. But there might just be enough people keen enough to watch it on TV under the mistaken belief that the name represented any badge of quality.

So it was that we ended up with Home Alone 4: Taking Back The House.

The writers of this movie had a problem on their hands, because since Home Alone 3, the world had changed again. Alex Pruitt – hero to dozens though he was – simply wouldn’t work in a post 9-11 era. It simply wasn’t feasible for children to fight terrorists. That was something grown men with no education and low employment prospects had to do. There was only one thing left to do with the franchise. They were going to do the one thing everyone does when they’ve poisoned the well with a crappy instalment: take it back to its roots.

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Home Alone 4: Taking Back The House (2002)

Good news for anyone who hated Alex Pruitt (i.e. everyone who saw Home Alone 3). For this film we’re back with the McCallisters. But hold on a second! Things look a little different. They’re living in a different house, for a start. And also all their faces have completely changed. Did they use the money from the sale of their last house to pay for extensive costmetic surgery? Or does this take place in a parallel universe? It’s hard to say. But it’s also not important, because things have gone sour in the HACU.

Yes, the McCallisters – once a paradigm of wholesome (though antagonistic) American family togetherness – have been shattered by divorce. It’s ruined Christmas. It’s upset the kids. Kevin’s carefree blonde mop has turned a maudlin brown. It’s never made entirely clear what happened. Kevin’s mother suggests that his dad got “stuck in a rut”, which sounds unnecessarily graphic to me. If I had to guess I’d say the breaking point was a surprise baby with John Candy’s face.

But don’t feel bad for Kevin’s probably-cuckolded father, because he’s got a new wife. A slinky young one with a eyes like a shark, a high-powered job running charity fundraising events, and a house big enough for a herd of elephants to really stretch out in. Peter and Natalie want the kids to come stay with them at Christmas so that they can get to know their future step-mom (the couple are engaged) but they’ll have to stay alongside their incoming charity guests: the Royal Family of Not Specified. Only Kevin obliges.

While his dad and Natalie go about their high-powered jobs, Kevin settles into the unreasonably large mansion. He runs around his toy-filled, seizure-inducing bedroom shouting “THIS IS SO COOL” and gets to know the home help (Weirdo Butler Prescott and Grandma-esque Housekeeper Molly). But the fun (‘fun’) really starts when Marv – last seen in Home Alone 2 nursing severe head trauma – begins to stake out the house with the intention of kidnapping the Prince when he arrives. And he’s brought his new wife, Vera.

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The twist (‘twist’) in this movie is that the house is a “smart house”, which means people keep standing in front of a door and saying “open door” into a remote control so that the door opens. It’s more futuristic than Elon Musk riding a cloned T-Rex through EPCOT. It’s also drastically under-used as a narrative device. They spend a lot of time setting it up, but the end of the film still just involves paint pots being hung precariously on doorframes and other non-smart forms of attack.

Still, this one gets to some action a lot quicker than most. We’re not 30 minutes into the film when the entire house has been flooded at least once. Marv and Vera break in and are dispatched several times before the Prince they want to kidnap has even arrived, which just seems like poor planning to me. We’re invited to believe that Prescott is working with them (spoiler: it’s quite obvious that he isn’t) but kids might be fooled by the revelation of who is. It’s not M. Night Shyamalan, but it’s at least competent in its misdirection.

Despite that mildly interesting twist, the plot is repetitive and craftless and lacks the kind of set pieces that really make these films work. It doesn’t help that all of the actors have invented a new level of terrible to work on and almost every line of dialogue is charmlessly utilitarian. Everyone speaks entirely in exposition. This is a world without subtext. At some point the sound guy apparently tried to get fired, because in the back half of the film there are random cartoonish sound effects (tree falling, bells ringing, jet engines flying past) on just about everything that could tenuously warrant it.

In terms of eliciting any actual emotions, the film grossly overestimates the effectiveness of its own arc. There are some vague nods to the idea that Natalie isn’t very nice – a little selfish, perhaps – but she’s nowhere near awful enough for the level of comeuppance she gets at the end of the film. The movie could only be more complete in its humiliation of Natalie if it ended with a truck full of manure being backed onto her. And yet she’s not actively evil, she just doesn’t really like Kevin and wants his Dad to herself. Not unreasonable, given that Kevin flooded her house the first time he met her.

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There are some very, very, very rare moments where it seems like the writer had something insightful to say. Specifically, Peter’s speech about how marrying young can be a burden on people’s personal development rings oddly sincere for a movie that has zero sincerity anywhere else in it. And at one point, Natalie says “I don’t understand people who watch movies over and over again.” with so little prompting that I’m convinced it’s the screenwriter taking a shot at the film’s audience.

But despite those brief glimpses of sanity, you can’t slice this movie in any way that doesn’t reveal it to be garbage. And its biggest crime is that it doesn’t even fit into Home Alone Cinematic Universe continuity because Kevin claims that he’s 9, and he was 8 in the first movie, and this film shows at least one Christmas that wasn’t either of the previous ones. And also Buzz has lost several years off his age. And everyone’s got mobile phones and stuff. The BEST I can do for you guys is to say it’s a Superman Returns-style sequel to Home Alone that replaces Lost In New York. Take it or leave it.

First kill: Kevin shuts Prescott into a walk-in freezer. He is frozen solid and mistakenly used as an ice sculpture centrepiece until it’s smashed open. There’s no way anyone survives being embedded in a 3 inch layer of ice without their heart stopping or brain being turned to mush.

Gratuitous references: I mean, where do you start? Half of the characters are walking gratuitous references. Leaving that aside, Marv mentions Harry even though he’s not in the movie. A little more confusingly, he dresses like Harry, which makes me think the costume people didn’t care enough to check which was Marv and which was Harry. At one point, Kevin offers to stay home alone: “I’ve done it before”, he says. “Don’t remind me.” Says his mother (yes, really don’t remind us of the much better Home Alone movie). Kevin lip-syncs in the bathroom mirror. It just goes on and on, and never once comes up with anything as good as the original.

Schmaltz level: OFF THE FUCKING CHARTS. Any film that ends with divorced parents reuniting needs to go straight in the bin, but even THAT wasn’t schmaltzy enough for them: at the end of the film, Kevin uses one of the smart remotes to order the universe that it should snow. And it immediately does. It’s a White Christmas. “THIS IS THE BEST CHRISTMAS EVER” he shouts, experiencing what can only be described as a psychotic break with reality. I had to mentally cut in the ending to Jacob’s Ladder just to prevent myself from throwing up my entire gastro-intestinal system.

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Tree decoration scene: Kevin and his Dad decorate the tree, only to find that Natalie has had it professionally redecorated the following morning. Oooh, she’s so evil!

Number of times anyone is home alone in this movie: NONE! At least one friendly member of staff is ALWAYS there when Kevin is. I feel like this is probably a very important component of a movie called ‘home alone’ and so far two out of four don’t qualify with any real rigour. Bad franchise! No more theatrical releases for you.

Genital injury motif: Fake Marv takes a model plane right in the sticky bandits.