When committing to do a series reviewing every entry in a writer’s catalog, I know there are gonna be some duds to slog through, and I was fearing “Dennis the Menace” (1993) and “Flubber” (1997) in my John Hughes project. Of these two reworkings of midcentury properties – the 1951 comic strip (which was also a TV series) and the 1961 movie “The Absent-Minded Professor” — at least one of them is not too annoying, but it’s not the one I would’ve guessed.
Two John Hughes staples – animals and pratfalls – are on display in his original, clunky-but-likable “Beethoven” (1992) and his slick live-action adaptation of “101 Dalmatians” (1996). The latter is the better film (and it’s perhaps why Hughes uses his own name there, and the pseudonym Edmond Dantes on “Beethoven”), but out of the two, “Dalmatians” also feels more like a mass-appeal product.
Career Opportunities” (1991) is an often likable but ultimately unfocused entry in writer John Hughes’ oeuvre. Like the two armed robbers being distracted by Josie McClellan (Jennifer Connelly) riding a mechanical horse while wearing a tight tank top, I sometimes forget why I’m at this Target store in the first place. In their case, it’s to rob it for supplies; in my case, it’s to watch a thoughtful coming-of-age dramedy. In both cases, we get sidetracked.
Because of the reputation that the “Home Alone” films precipitously drop off in quality after part two, I had low expectations for director Raja Gosnell and writer John Hughes’ “Home Alone 3” (1997), and ended up rather liking it. Alex D. Linz gives an endearing child performance as 8-year-old Alex Pruitt, whose snowy Chicago neighborhood is invaded by four industrial-espionage agents trying to reacquire a valuable computer chip that’s in Alex’s toy monster truck.
John Hughes wrote five Christmas or Thanksgiving films between 1987-92, but with their adult humor and – in the case of the “Home Alones” — violence, arguably none of them were appropriate young viewers. His Nineties update of “Miracle on 34th Street” (1994) rectifies that. Directed by Les Mayfield and based on the 1947 film written by George Seaton, this “Miracle” is ideally suited for kids on the borderline between belief and nonbelief in Santa Claus.
Sequels inspired by easy money rather than creative impulse are always risky propositions for viewers, and “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (1992) – following in the footsteps of the most successful Christmas film and most successful comedy ever – is worth approaching with wariness. It’s not phoned in by the returning team of writer John Hughes and director Christopher Columbus – indeed, the idea of bringing the action to New York City is smart – but by the end of its too-long 2 hours, it’s clearly a step down.
Home Alone” (1990) is a simple crowd-pleaser on the surface, deftly crafted by writer John Hughes and director Chris Columbus (among the best directors of kids since Steven Spielberg). But it has gained an intriguing layer of controversy in the 30 years since its release because of the violence inflected on the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci’s Harry and Daniel Stern’s Marv) by young Kevin (Macaulay Culkin).
The most interesting thing about “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure” (2003) is that it exists. Impress your friends with the trivia: Yes, there is a sequel to “Christmas Vacation” (1989). It went straight-to-TV and premiered on NBC, the second of three films in the series (along with “Vegas Vacation” and 2015’s “Vacation”) made without John Hughes.
John Hughes’ other Thanksgiving movie, “Dutch” (1991), has that “other” status for a reason: It’s not as funny as “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987). However, as I got to the end of this road-tripper, I realized I owe it a future rewatch, because it’s not trying to be as humorous. Its interest is in the relationship between entitled kid Doyle (Ethan Embry) and potential stepfather Dutch (Ed O’Neill). I’ve been told this stuff will ring true to people thrown into such a relationship, but it’s frustrating how long it takes Doyle to turn into a nice kid. (It seems so wrong that Embry, later of “Vegas Vacation” and “Can’t Hardly Wait,” isn’t playing his usual sweetest-guy-ever.)
If we started a debate over the greatest Christmas movie, it could go on until New Year’s, but “greatest Thanksgiving movie” is easier: It’s “Plains, Trains and Automobiles” (1987), an all-timer not only among Turkey Day films but also among the catalogs of John Hughes, John Candy and Steve Martin. Cleverly, it’s not about the family gathering itself, but rather about getting home to family – and it ultimately has a heartfelt message about the holiday’s original meaning.