A Twice-Told Fairy Tale

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THE BOTTOM LINE: Surprise -- an uncynical sequel that actually deserves its assured success.

Act I: an extended, flurried family departs for a holiday trip, in the process mislaying its youngest member. Act II: at first the kid is frightened to find himself all alone in a big scary world, but then he begins to enjoy his freedom. Act III: threatened by comical bad guys, he begins to long for the loving comfort of Mom, Dad and even his hateful older brother. Nevertheless, he copes bravely and funnily with adversity. Coda: everyone gets back together, Christmas sentiment asserts itself, and they all live happily ever after. Or until the next sequel, whichever comes first.

Yes, Home Alone 2 precisely follows the formula that made its predecessor the biggest grossing comedy in human history. But no, it is not a drag, and it is not a rip-off. Look on it as a twice-told fairy tale. And look on its tellers, writer John Hughes and director Chris Columbus, as craftsmen who have taken the responsibilities of success seriously. They have acted not as caretakers of valuable property but as trustees of something millions regard as a kind of national treasure, pop-culture division.

Hughes and Columbus have kept the faith in two ways. By maintaining the overall structure of the first Home Alone, they create a comfortable sense of anticipation. In a general way you know what's coming, and you know it's not going to be yucky. On the other hand, the details of the situations are developed vividly and originally. And they are presented with an energy and a conviction that sequels usually lack.

The subtitle, Lost in New York, tells much, but not everything, about their strategy. They don't just leave little Kevin (bold, vulnerable Macaulay Culkin) at home this time. They contrive to get him on the wrong airplane and land him in a place we all know is a lot more daunting than the average suburb. Soon his parents are frantic in Florida while he settles himself in the Plaza Hotel and starts ordering room service. Soon too, Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), the goofily overconfident burglars of the earlier film, are maneuvered into place. And a couple of ambiguously creepy hotel employees (Tim Curry and Dana Ivey) are added to keep Kevin a little busier than usual.

But it is Columbus, a director who can make a routine shot of a couple of airplanes taking off artful and full of portent, who completes our entrancement. He has -- no kidding -- a vision of New York City, a nicely dislocating blend of charm and grunge. It's not quite real, not entirely fanciful. It is a child's-eye view of the place, full of glamorous shimmer and eerie shadows, a haunted Disneyland.

It may be that Kevin's final confrontation with the crooks -- this time he booby-traps a brownstone that is undergoing renovation -- lacks the bestartling hilarity of his previous battle with them. It may be that his bonding with a homeless pigeon lady (Brenda Fricker) in Central Park is a touch too Christmasy. But it is a good-hearted excess. And that's the great thing about Home Alone 2. It is going to make a ton of money, but you never feel that's the only reason it was made. It respects itself and it respects us, and there's no reason to begrudge its success.