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Big Kid

''Home Alone'''s Macaulay Culkin -- Why kid movies suddenly are showing grown-up muscle at the box office

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On a rainy May afternoon this year, Macaulay Culkin was exactly where a 9-year-old boy ought to be: in school. But Culkin wasn't at Chicago's New Trier West High for its classes. The school, shuttered years ago, had been taken over for the filming of Home Alone, a comedy written and produced by John Hughes (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), and Culkin was its star. If there was pressure on him, however, it was hardly showing. New Trier West's cavernous gymnasium had been converted to one of the movie's sets, and Culkin turned it into his own indoor playground when the cameras weren't rolling. In one corner of the gym, representing a messy suburban basement, he casually rearranged the props for a little impromptu croquet. First he cleared away a dress form and some Halloween skulls from the floor. Then he placed an old football helmet on its side, and backed up. Finally, dropping a croquet ball on the floor, he took a swing with a mallet and — thwack! — a helmet in one. ''Yes!'' shouted Culkin, raising his small fist in the air.

Home Alone has become this holiday season's first major blockbuster, and with its success Culkin has scored a hat trick in little more than a year. The young actor first found fame playing John Candy's nephew in 1989's Uncle Buck. This year he appeared as Tim Robbins' angelic son in Jacob's Ladder. But as Home Alone's Kevin McCallister, Culkin makes the transition from sidekick to lead.

Home's phenomenal success demonstrates the growing clout that kids — both on-screen and in the audience — are showing at the box office. The movie broke the preholiday fall release record (held by 1989's Harlem Nights) by pulling in more than $17 million its opening weekend (it earned another $28 million over the long Thanksgiving weekend), kicking the daylights out of Stallone's heavyweight Rocky V in the process. ''Rocky is probably wondering, 'Who is this kid? I want to beat the crap out of him,''' Culkin says gleefully. And Home Alone is only the first of an onslaught of child movies. After the 1989 hits Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Look Who's Talking, movie marketers fervently embraced the idea of putting small faces on the big screen. Three Men and a Little Lady opened to strong business over Thanksgiving weekend, and the sequel Look Who's Talking Too and Kindergarten Cop, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a policeman who poses as a teacher, are expected to jam multiplexes this Christmas.

But while the kids in those movies play roles supporting such grown-ups as Tom Selleck and John Travolta, Culkin is the star of Home Alone. In the movie, he gets to run wild as an 8-year-old who receives for Christmas every child's greatest wish and biggest fear: having his house to himself. (His family overlooks him in a frenzied rush to the airport and his parents are halfway to Paris before they realize their awful mistake.) Taking advantage of the situation, Kevin goes sledding down the front stairs, watches trashy television, eats junk food for dinner, and then defends his home from a pair of bungling burglars, played by Joe Pesci (GoodFellas) and Daniel Stern (Coupe De Ville).

In light of the movie's popularity, Hughes' concept for Home Alone now seems surefire, but it didn't always look that way. Warner Bros. was originally slated to release the movie but backed out four weeks before filming was to begin. ''They were concerned about the [$15 million] budget,'' says executive producer Scott Rosenfelt (Mystic Pizza). ''As they saw it, it was a big movie to hang on a 9-year-old.'' Twentieth Century Fox, willing to take the gamble, picked up the movie. But despite confidence in Hughes, Culkin, and what Rosenfelt calls ''a wonderfully commercial script,'' the producers still took precautions to minimize the risks inherent in an expensive film with a star whose greatest love is Nintendo. ''The idea was to have strong actors around Macaulay,'' says Rosenfelt. ''Normally we wouldn't have had to cast names like Catherine O'Hara (Betsy's Wedding), or John Heard (Big), or Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.''

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