Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 19

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

A hit as enormous as “Home Alone” demanded a sequel. As the surprise hit of 1990, the film made Macaulay Culkin a breakout star and remained hugely popular on VHS. A sequel was quickly rushed into production, hitting theaters two years later. Despite its quickie status, the sequel lured back original director Chris Columbus, writer John Hughes, and all the first film’s major stars.

The next December, the McCallister family plans to spend their holiday vacation in Florida. Just like last time, the family oversleeps. Luckily, Kevin isn’t left alone at home. Instead, during the rush through the airport, the boy winds up with his dad’s bag on a separate plane. While his family heads to Florida, Kevin winds up in New York. Happy to be away from his asshole family, he shacks up in a fancy hotel, having adventures with a kindly toy shop owner and an eccentric homeless woman. Unlucky for Kevin, the Wet Bandits have escaped from prison and are in the same city. It’s only a matter of time before the boy and the bandits confront each other again.

John Hughes and Chris Columbus rightly figured that Kevin being left in his house by himself again would push believably. As the title indicates, “Home Alone 2” has the boy lost in New York City. This was the only difference the creative team implemented. Otherwise, “Lost in New York” is more than happy to pillage elements from the first movie. Once again, Kevin has an argument with his extended family, making him resent them leading up to the holidays. After being separated from them, he happily notes their absence. In both films, Kevin uses an improvised marionette and his puppetry skills to fool a grown-up. For a second time, he utilizes audio from a gangster movie to fool and terrify somebody. History repeats itself when Kevin meets a frightening stranger that ends up helping him. Both times, this person saves the kid from the crooks. The film leaps through some improbable plot points to get Kevin and the Wet Bandits back together. They just happen to escape a year later, just happen to end up in NYC, and just happen to run into a small boy in a city of 7.3 million people. John Hughes probably received a nice paycheck for copy-and-pasting the first movie’s screenplay.

At least shifting the setting around is a smart idea. New York is, after all, the most Christmas-y of all American cities. The various landmarks – such as Central Park, the World Trade Center, and Donald Trump back when he was just a harmless pop culture joke instead of a legitimately evil presidential candidate – are well utilized. For most of the second act, Kevin stays inside the Plaza Hotel. Though the scenes of the boy fucking with the hotel staff aren’t fresh laughs, they’re still amusing. This is mostly thanks to Tim Curry’s gloriously ridiculous performance as the villainous Concierge. Dana Ivey and, yes, even Rob Schneider aren’t bad as his cohorts. Watching Curry’s disbelief when the gangster movie makes references to him kissing the doorman is amusing. As is the reoccurring gag about Schneider being tipped with gum. The movie also introduced the Talkboy, a toy so cool that it crossed over into reality.

This being a “Home Alone” movie, it has to end with the most brutal violence permitted by a PG rating. “Lost in New York” ramps the already improbable punishment Harry and Marv suffered to truly cartoonish levels. Despite having all of New York to play in, “Home Alone 2” confines its last act to an abandoned apartment building. Marv is beaned with a brick four times. This alone should have killed him but the movie is just getting started. He is shot with a staple gun in the butt, balls, and face. He falls fifteen feet onto a hard wood floor. He’s buried under a shelf of paint cans. Most ridiculously, Marv is electrocuted by jumper cables. Singling the film’s complete crossover into cartoon reality, his skeleton flashes through his skin! This is, perhaps, a side effect of the already buffoonish Marv being turned into a totally childish man-child.

The abuse Harry suffers is no less extreme. He’s set on fire, blown up, falls off a fire escape onto concrete, stumbles off a ladder, and is plummeted with wrenches. Both men are slammed in the face with a iron dumbbell, fall another fifteen feet, climb a blazing rope, and fall even further, through an awning, and into the basement. “Home Alone 2’s” attempt to top the first movie’s mayhem pushes the sequel into exaggerated, sadistic direction. The action is so overdone that it quickly shifts from amusing to tiresome.

Despite being boldly derivative of the first movie, the sequel nearly matched the original’s massive 400 million gross. Part two topped out at 358 million. I guess audiences in the early nineties couldn’t get enough of Macaulay Culkin brutalizing a pair of adults. Apparently you can’t go wrong giving people more of what they liked the first time. Despite the box office receipts, Kevin McCallister did not return a third time to torment Harry and Marv. The series continued but without Culkin. Three was an awful kids’ movie. The fourth and fifth “Home Alone” movies – I didn’t know they existed until just now either – ended up going direct to television. The original is a suitably entertaining popcorn flick but “Home Alone 2” is too willing to copy the first’s blueprint. [6/10]

A Wish for Wings That Work (1991)

Back in 2013, I mentioned a VHS tape I had as a child. It was full of Christmas specials, recorded off television. Among “The Snowman,” “Garfield’s Christmas Special,” and “Ziggy’s Gift” was “A Wish for Wings That Work.” Even as late as 1991, popular comic strips could get half-hour Christmas specials in prime time. The popularity of Berkeley Breathed’s “Bloom County” was incredibly short-lived though. Compared to the decades-long run of other strips, “Bloom County” was only published for ten years. I don’t personally recall ever seeing the strip in my local newspapers. Unlike the similarly short-lived “Calvin & Hobbs,” “Bloom County” has not lingered in the pop culture consciousness. It’s time-specific pop culture and political commentary has not aged well. Though “A Wish for Wings That Work” is no less obscure, at least it’s on DVD.

Opus is a penguin, living with his friend Bill the Cat somewhere in the frozen north. Being a penguin, Opus can not fly. Yet he desperately desires the experience of flying. He tries using his own wings or tying balloons to his body. When neither of these attempts succeed, Opus falls back on the strategy favored by children the world over: He asks Santa Claus for the ability to fly as a Christmas gift. It just so happens that, during his Christmas Eve flight around the world, Santa’s sleigh breaks down above Opus’ town. This allows the penguin an up-close encounter with the legendary figure.

“Bloom County’ was not your typical comic strip. Accordingly, “A Wish for Wings That Work” is not your typical holiday special. Opus’ town is full of some very odd residents. There’s a pig that thinks he’s a rhino, who spends his days rampaging through town. While seeking therapy for his flight-related neurosis, Opus ends up in a bird support group. Also in this group is a manic chicken and a kiwi who is incredibly bitter about his wife leaving him for an albatross. His anxiety about his wing size is obviously a metaphor for penis size anxieties, another grown-up joke sneaked into the special. Outside the support group, Opus meets a cross-dressing cockroach, a joke that definitely would not fly today. (The kiwi is voiced by Robin Williams and the cockroach by Dustin Hoffman, both uncredited.) Bill the Cat is no less gross in animated form then when drawn. He coughs up a furball and spends most of the special rooting around in garbage.

Truthfully, “A Wish for Wings That Work” is a little too weird and mean-spirited for its own good at times. When a flock of seagulls mock Opus for his aspiration, the special doesn’t seem to immediately disagree with them. The half-hour does have its highlights though. The dialogue can be nicely biting at times. Opus blaming his lack of flight on “Congress” is a nice joke. A dream sequence, that utilizes footage from 1937’s “Lost Horizon,” is a fun and off-beat moment. Opus’ butt falling off, like a loose hubcap, is an image that has always stuck with me. When Santa appears, his sleigh has dropped in the icy water. Being a penguin, Opus’ natural swimming abilities comes in handy. The special is meant to have a moral about accepting one’s own abilities and being happy with who you are. “A Wish for Wings That Work” is a little too sarcastic to sell an earnest message like that.

Obviously, the special is flawed. Berkeley Breathed himself didn’t care for it. I don’t know how often it aired on TV but I can’t imagine it was more than once or twice. However, the animation is quite nice and its sense-of-humor is quirky enough to be memorable. It never quite works for me every time I watch it but I, nevertheless, have a nostalgic connection to “A Wish for Wings That Work.” [7/10]

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