Q: What do you get when you name a kid after a famous Italian explorer and then send him to NYU film school?
A: Chris Columbus—who, unlike the real Columbus, didn't kill anybody or infect any continents with diseases. The similarities end with the names.
Instead of being credited with discovering America (even though Vikings were the first Europeans to arrive), Chris Columbus did something equally important: he directed Home Alone, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Mrs. Doubtfire, the first two Harry Potter movies, and wrote Gremlins and The Goonies.
Like John Hughes, this guy can pull classic family-friendly entertainment out of thin air, like a magician conjuring up a rabbit. They're also both in touch with their inner child—who is apparently an extremely rich, genius kid.
Like Hughes, Chris Columbus is an expert entertainer: both a craftsman and a salesman. (That's why they got him to direct those Harry Potter movies.) But again, like Hughes, we can see real themes emerge in his work. He's not just spooning out schlock.
Consider two of his mega hits. What, after all, do Gremlins and Home Alone have in common—aside from the first being written by Columbus, and the second directed by him? Yup: they're both about the forces of anarchy and darkness attempting to disrupt Christmas.
In Gremlins, those forces are represented by—you got it—gremlins. These creatures perform mischief that rapidly accelerates into murder, threatening the festive atmosphere of the holidays. As everyone knows, Christmas is about having political arguments with relatives, not killing people. The gremlins must be defeated...
In Home Alone, those same forces of societal decay are represented by two burglars, men who attack the comfortable material basis of life in the plush upper class and upper-middle-class suburbs of Chicago. But Kevin brings the pain, and they lose.
See? These two movies are peas in the same red-and-green-striped pod.
Columbus commented on their shared Christmas themes, saying:
"I set Gremlins, which is a very dark story, against the bright cheery time of Christmas, and I thought it was a good contrast. Christmas is a time when people are at their happiest or at their most emotionally low place in their lives, and I thought that this is a great backdrop for a kid who's left home alone on Christmas. I think what really completely convinced me I had to do the movie was the scene in the church with the old man and Kevin. I just thought that was a beautifully written scene, and that scene on film is exactly as John wrote it. I mean, we didn't change a word of that scene." (Source)
In the same interview with Entertainment Weekly, Columbus explains that he added certain touches to the movie that weren't in Hughes script—like the fact that Kevin looks out the window at the end and actually sees Marley reuniting with his family.
Also, he allowed John Candy to do freewheeling improvisations. As Gus Polinski, Candy made up the speech about accidentally abandoning his kid at a funeral parlor. According to Columbus, "That just came out of nowhere." (Source)
Columbus' work also has a lot to do with the resourcefulness of young people in staving off villains, as evidenced by the Home Alone movies but also his other films. In Goonies, a group of kids foil a family of criminals in order to find One Eyed Willy's treasure (we see absolutely nothing hilarious about this legendary pirate's name), and the Harry Potter movies pit kids against the monolithic evil presented by Lord Voldemort.
Children (or teenagers) generally win out and preserve the stability of their world, whether saving their house from golf course developers in Goonies, or protecting Hogwarts from the Dark Arts.