“Not Home Alone” might be the alternate title of this brash, annoying juvenile slapstick comedy about a bunch of youngsters, mostly the children of divorced families shuttling between moms and dads for Christmas, who are stranded at an airport while trying to get home for the holidays and cause lots of trouble for the hapless employees who must deal with them. But that’s not the John Hughes movie that seems the primary inspiration for “Unaccompanied Minors.” The picture is more a pre-teen combination of “Planes Trains and Automobiles” and “The Breakfast Club,” with a dash of “Ferris Bueller” tossed in for good measure. The result is very like the sort of thing you’d expect to be produced for a slot on the ABC Family Channel. At the very least its shortcomings would be less blatant on a smaller screen.
The skin-deep “plot” is the purest pablum. When a blizzard shuts down the remote Hoover International Airport on Christmas Eve, all the kids traveling alone are put into a cavernous “lounge” under the eye of likable clerk Zach Van Bourke (Wilmer Valderrama). But five of them escape. One is Spencer (Dyllan Christopher), a pleasant white-bread kid chaperoning his kid sister Katherine (Dominique Saldana). Those who join him on the run are rich princess Grace (Gina Mantegna), gruff tomboy Donna (Quinn Shephard), nervous preppy-wannabe Charlie (Tyler James Williams) and chubby dreamer Timothy (Brett Kelly). The quintet lead airport staff, including Zach and his cynical boss Oliver Porter (Lewis Black), on a merry chase as they try to make their way to a nearby hotel where the other tykes, including Katherine, have been moved for the night so that good bro Spencer can put the doll she’s expecting Santa to bring her by her side before morning. Of course, along the way they bond despite their differences, and there are even hints of puppy love among them by the time their adventures are over; and in the end they’re responsible for bringing some Christmas cheer to all the stranded passengers (and even Scrooge-like Porter). Meanwhile, in a recurrent subplot, Spencer’s environmentally-conscious dad Sam (Rob Corddrey) is making his way to the airport to retrieve his kids; that allows for a big reconciliation scene at the finale, too.
“Unaccompanied Minors” juggles cartoonish slapstick chases–one involving a terminal people-mover, another canoes and other unlikely means of sledding down snowdrifts, a third involving the airport’s mechanized baggage conveyer–with warm sequences of the kids learning to overcome their initial hostility and crowd-pleasing ones of their outsmarting nemesis Porter and simply “acting out” in slightly naughty but exuberant ways. But the mix never takes off because the execution is so poor. Director Paul Feig, who’s worked mostly in television (he created the cult fave “Freaks and Geeks”) can’t get a handle on things; the whole movie seems messy and undisciplined, without the sharpness or precision physical comedy needs. It doesn’t help that the writers have felt compelled to include every bad element of contemporary kid movies in their mix: we have to wait only about a minute into the running-time for our first crotch-punch, and about ten for a belching contest. (The fart jokes come later, though thankfully there aren’t any vomit scenes.)
And Feig doesn’t have a magic touch with his cast. Children are notoriously hard to direct, but he can’t seem to get a handle on his young players at all. Williams is encouraged to bug out his eyes and gyrate too much; he’s a miniature Jimmy Walker. Christopher is asked to pose and grin into the camera too insistently, and Mantegna and Shephard, in what are basically the Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy roles, are too constantly “on.” Kelly, on the other hand, disappears for great stretches while off on a mission to secure a Christmas tree–which is not necessarily a bad thing–while Saldana’s combination of wide-eyed innocence and tantrum-prone shrillness comes across as simply odd. The adults are all imbeciles, of course, and there’s not much to choose between Black’s tiresome bluster, Valderrama’s bland likableness and Corddry’s supposedly angelic naivete. (The ethnic element in Valderrama’s turn–at one point he even has to shout “Ay, caramba!”–is, however, a particularly low point.) And a recurrent subplot about Spencer’s concerned mother (Paget Brewster) and her Christmas-loving sister is especially weird. Technically the picture is on the level of TV-movie fare, but special knocks are due editor Brad E. Wilhite, who handles the montages ineptly and whose reaction-shot cutaways are surprisingly ill-chosen. (Of course, one never knows what he had to choose from.)
Watching “Unaccompanied Minors” is about as much fun as babysitting this group of kids would be. And even the title seems slightly off; the adjective is wrong. Once word gets around, these “Minors” probably won’t be as much unaccompanied as unattended.