By Megan Bianco
As someone who went through a big John Hughes obsession in 7th grade and still considers him one of my favorite filmmakers, I’ve noticed a few things that are common in his movies. One is that they usually take place within a 12- to 48-hour time period. Another is that they often take place on a special occasion, like a vacation, holiday, birthday, detention, or ditch day. As the holiday season carries on, I’ve been noticing a lot of appreciation for Hughes’ holiday features. As is the case with his teen movies or the “Vacation” franchise, his holiday movies have a demographic and following that’s lasted over the years. But which are the essentials, and which are the skips?
I’ll be one of the few ‘90s kids who thinks “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (1992) is tedious and phoned in, and doesn’t live up to the same Christmas charm as the first one. The ‘90s would be a pretty bleak period in Hughes’ film career, including his scripts of the remakes “Miracle on 34th Street” (1994) and “101 Dalmatians” (1996). While “34th Street” isn’t necessarily terrible, it doesn’t offer anything more for the holiday season that the original 1947 film already does. And while “101 Dalmatians” may only have one scene set at Christmas, the winter snow in the London does set the mood. But as I just mentioned, Hughes’ take on the 1961 Disney animated classic doesn’t add anything new and plays it safe.
“Dutch” (1991) was the beginning of Hughes leaving behind directing and switching over to just producing and writing. At the beginning of his review for the movie, Roger Ebert wrote: “At least when [John Hughes] makes a formula picture, he’s following his own formula.” That’s pretty much it when it comes to “Dutch.” It’s “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” (1987) but with Ed O’Neil and 12-year-old Ethan Embry traveling home for Thanksgiving. “Christmas Vacation” (1989) is probably the best of Hughes’ sequels and certainly the most popular. Although the formula of the first “Vacation” (1983) is still the same, the execution also still works, perhaps because it’s the film that introduced a lot of people to the Chevy Chase/Beverly D’Angelo series.
The blockbuster family comedy “Home Alone” (1990) would be the second collaboration between Hughes and child star Macaulay Culkin, and his first of three with director Chris Columbus. Despite mixed reviews from critics, audiences were completely won over by 9-year-old Culkin trying to fight off goofy bandits Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from robbing his family’s house the week of Christmas. The fact that it’s survived this long as a holiday staple for the past 26 years speaks volumes. The movie doesn’t try to be anything other than slapstick holiday silliness and sometimes that’s exactly what you want during December.
While Hughes became synonymous with coming of age pieces, his most critically acclaimed film would actually be the Thanksgiving essential “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” It’s a classic odd couple scenario with two middle-aged family men, Steve Martin and John Candy, struggling to get home before the holiday dinner. Re-watching the film last month to get in the turkey mood, it is clear how strong and confident Hughes had become as a writer-director by this point in his career. He’d already had “The Breakfast Club” (1985) and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) under his belt as hits, and though the studio pushed him to stay with the teen crowd, Hughes stuck to his guns and made one of the most personal movies of his career. With his most frequent actor, Candy, and Martin at the prime of his career, Hughes has the perfect foil for his trademark screwball comedy and whimsical mood.
Much like Walt Disney or Frank Capra, Hughes was more interested in idealism rather than realism on screen, referring to his work as modern fairy tales. The holidays are the perfect theme and setting for sentimental fantasies, especially if the filmmaker is as gifted as these three are. So in reiteration, if you’re in the mood for a John Hughes holiday treat: “PT&A,” “Home Alone” and “Christmas Vacation” remain the must-sees, “34th Street” and “101 Dalmatians” are just for the diehard fans, “Dutch” and “Home Alone 2” are the misses.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.
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