Over the following decade, Hughes went on to write and produce critical duds like the 1993 adaptation of Dennis the Menace, 1994’s Baby’s Day Out, and a quirky but forgettable remake of The Absent-Minded Professor starring Robin Williams, 1997’s Flubber. None of these films resonated the way his earlier works did, but they made a lot of money (1996’s 101 Dalmatians netted $136,189,294, while Flubber took in $92,977,226). But there are some bright spots in Hughes’s post-Home Alone filmography, like the film’s sequel and the surprisingly dark and sad 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street that Hughes wrote and produced.)
Many artists enjoy creative golden ages before hitting a peak, or a plateau, or fizzling out entirely. So why is Hughes’s decline so exceptional? After all, he’s not a critical heavyweight like Alfred Hitchcock, he’s not associated with any film movement, he never won any major awards for his work, and he was never quite an indie darling. Hughes was always commercial to an extent, something that shouldn’t be too surprising since he was writing copy at major advertising agencies before he got into film. And yet his movies are seen as definitive tales of the ’80s, proof that Hughes had something special to offer audiences.
Hughes was a writer before all things; for him, the story came first. But after Home Alone, he just relied on that same formula, or worked on adaptations and remakes that already had built-in stories. In other words, there wasn’t as much to create, which might explain why his ’90s output just doesn’t hold up as well as his work from the previous decade. Hughes himself said he was disillusioned by his time spent in Hollywood; his post-Home Alone success gave him a chance to move on. And yet he hadn’t lost his creativity: According to David Kamp’s Vanity Fair piece, the hyper-prolific Hughes left behind hundreds of notebooks filled with new stories, some completed, others just the seeds of ideas.
There’s ample reason to wonder how Hughes and his work would be viewed if he’d gone down a different path and not simply chased the broad box-office appeal. There’s an undeniable urgency and energy to the movies from the 1980s that bear his name that you just don’t find in his later work. The formula he came up with for Home Alone, the one he found the most success with, was structurally sound and easy to replicate, but ultimately empty. It’s Frank Whaley and Jennifer Connelly in Career Opportunities forced to defend a Target store against two dimwitted robbers, Dennis the Menace doing battle with a burglar named Switchblade Sam, the baby in Baby’s Day Out outsmarting three kidnappers, and the very forgettable third Home Alone film.
Though his teen films continue to have an indelible hold on pop culture today, it’s Home Alone that might ultimately be Hughes’s most enduring movie. It spurred studios to clamor for high-yield, family-friendly movies while elevating the man who directed it, Chris Columbus. Hughes passed the torch to Columbus, whose greatest success before 1990 was Adventures in Babysitting—a film people often wrongly associate with Hughes because it’s a story about teens in Chicago in the 1980s and features a Hughesian happy ending.