There’s a new Home Alone movie out, called Home Sweet Home Alone. It’s a soft-reboot (meaning a sequel in the series that just retreads the plot of the original film with new characters), and the titular ‘Home Sweet Home’ is not that of the requisite Rube-Goldberg machine constructing kid who gets left home alone. Herein lies one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. The “bad guys” who are mangled and mutilated by the kid’s violent home defence strategies, here are a down-on-their-luck couple, with a family to feed, who believe the kid has unwittingly stolen their only hope to avoid having to sell their beloved family home.
The kid thinks the couple want to kidnap him, the couple think the kid doesn’t want to give up the MacGuffin. Who’s the bad guy? This is a movie that, in the spirit of the original, really needs to make us want to see the intruders take a beating. Why muddle things by making them so sympathetic? It follows an unfortunate trend in writing villains who are complicated, but not complex.
It is true, as Aaron Sorkin put it, that when writing a character, you can’t judge them. No character will become fully realized until you empathize with them. They can still be the scum of the earth, but it’s not your job to look down on them, it’s your job to think as they do when you write them. This rule would seem to imply that the more justifiable a villain’s actions are, the easier it is to empathize with them as a writer and audience member, and therefore bang-presto, you’ve got a complex character to make your film more compelling. Not necessarily the case. You don’t downplay their villainy to better identify with the villain (this is how you end up with conflicts where the audience isn’t really rooting for anybody outright); you simply write a character as villainous as the story requires, and carve them into something captivating by buying into their case for things as you write them.
One of the most common ways that this was done once upon a time, was to have the villain be the most charismatic and hedonistic character in the film. They may be unsympathetically evil, but they love doing what they do. They luxuriate in their venal spoils, they delight in their cruelty, nothing is a burden to them, except for the meddling heroes. This is a sort of villain that is on life-support today, and we’re worse off for it.
Think of the most famous canon of movie bad-guys; the Disney villains. The least memorable were often the most stoic, the antagonists that were meant to be the most intimidating, but wound up being the least interesting. If you’re so miserable all the time, why do you even care to rule the world? The Evil Queen from Snow White, Cruella de Vil, Ursula, Jafar, each with a maniacal laugh more booming then the last, these are the villains that stick in our minds. Even as they become increasingly exasperated (with henchmen and heroes alike) and vicious (we’ve got to be a little concerned after all), we understand why, even as we hope our protagonists give them what they’ve had coming.
Returning to Home Alone, do you remember the Wet Bandits? They LOVED not just the goods they got from robbing family homes, but how crafty they got while doing it (or at least how crafty they thought they were). Surely it would occur to any thieves that the house with a homicidal brat in it may best be left alone, but they soldiered on through the traps out of sheer spite over being outsmarted. These are one-dimensional characters in the extreme, but they’re fun to watch. How long before the Whats-their-name family of Home Sweet Home Alone are forgotten? When you need a big-bad for your lead to go up against, consider writing a villain; a real one.