Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Casper
I knew at some point I had to toss in a family movie that had some relevance to the holiday other than E.T. Among the many that get airtime on networks, I’m surprised to see how many times they play the 1995 live-action/CGI hybrid Casper. Its very much become a staple on ABC Family to the point its this generation’s Rankin Bass. Its not Halloween until they play it and its not Halloween without people seeing it. Seriously, its getting airplay at least three or four times this year. But to be fair, I watching movie a lot as a kid and have fond memories remembering what scenes I liked and some notable quotes. But over the years, there comes a point where as an adult, you have to revisit those films and TV shows that you grew up with to see how well it holds up. And for the longest time, I didn’t get a full look because I didn’t think it would live up to my expectations. Thus, I finally sat down to watch one of my childhood favorites and surprisingly, it still holds up. Ok, technically there’s problems but it still holds up in my books.
The first problem I should address is how much time we spend with the villain. The first 20 minutes focuses on a greedy woman named Carrigan who hopes spending time with her off-screen dying father would give her some dough. With everything going to charity, she is left with nothing but a condemned mansion in Friendship, Maine (and yes, this town does exist in real life oddly enough.) But it’s revealed a treasure of some value is buried and she plans to see what gold lies in the rundown place. To be fair, Cathy Moriarty is a good actress as playing characters like this but the entire character of Carrigan is just uninteresting. We’ve seen this kind of villain before. Its the Cruella de Vil kind of character that is self-centered and wants what she wants. What saves it from being boring is Moriarty’s performance who is clearly having fun but there has to be more to this character than being a selfish brat that wants hard cold cash. Even at her side is a bumbling butler named Dibs played by a surprisingly unfunny Eric Idle. And don’t get me wrong, I like Monty Python but his character really doesn’t do much for me. He’s the lackey that always gets the shaft and its a bit predicable at times. There’s a moment near the end they do this twist with him trying to turn tables but its very brief and doesn’t affect the narrative in anyway.
Well, its revealed the entire place is haunted by a friendly ghost named Casper and his unruly uncles who don’t tolerate “fleshies” in the household. Carrigan tries every method in the book to get rid of them from exorcisms to even a pointless one-note joke of a Dan Aykroyd cameo. Her last resort is in the form of a therapist that claims to have helped ghosts psychologically pass on who agrees to try and rid the spirits with his odd methods. Bill Pullman as Dr. Harvey is not too bad seeing how much invested he is in the supernatural. But at one point, when he runs into the Ghostly Trio, they start to mess with him so much that he acts like he’s doing this for the first time. A bit weird considering someone who claims to have dealt with ghosts before. Its never fully explained if he’s a con man or really dealt with spirits but its up for debate.
The center of the picture is really between his daughter Kat (Christina Ricci) and Casper. The two have a connection of social problems and try to work out each other’s faults. Casper is kind but his status as “undead” keeps people away and Kat wants to be a normal teenager like everyone else but her father’s work gets in the way or has trouble fitting in. Its the usual family film teenage schlock but its done ok. Even more so, she the more she bonds with the chipper spirit, the more she learns being a ghost is much harder than living. The way the world of a ghost is simple. You die, you loose memory. You go from hair and clothes, to an abstract blob. At least that is what I get from it because the universe and plot of Casper is so weightless that its hard to consider what kind of story its going for. Heck, the Carrigan character is not bothered with until the very last third and it just feels like she’s tossed in as something to move the story than be an effective villain.
I’d go into the many problems it has but that would be spoiling a lot for new viewers. In short, the story is not really there and is all over the map. Each moment feels more like a vignette that wonders with a purpose but ends without one. The only one I can think of that truly pays off is a storyline involving Dr. Harvey’s dead wife which I admit concludes nicely. But the rest of the movie feels like its on auto pilot most of the time. For example, when the Ghostly Trio meet up with Dr. Harvey, they try to mess with his mind or at least try and scare him. It leads into this whole fight scene which is cool but what’s the point. How did we go from scare the pants off this guy to fencing with umbrellas in the main hall? Speaking of which, the magnitude of cameos range from enjoyable to pointless. There’s a whole scene where Carrigan hires people to rid the ghosts like Father Sarducci and a Ghostbuster but it feels too obvious. Also, I don’t kids will remember Don Novello’s SNL character THAT well. There’s even a scene when Fatso, Stinky and Stretch posses Harvey into shape shifting into different celebrities. As a kid, I honestly thought it was the Ghosty Trio’s true forms when they were human. But as an adult, they feel like pointless cameos.
So for all the negatives, there’s at least some good stuff that balances it out. For one, the CGI is amazing. This is the first film to utilize computer-generated characters instead of using them as effects. You could also argue, its the first live-action/CGI hyrid movie seeing the computer is making characters and not effects. For the longest time, CGI was used to bring things like dinosaurs or morphing effects for movies like Willow or T2. Here, they pushed to the next level by making a three dimensional character as opposed to a special effect. And that is really the true star of the show. There are times I want to marvel at the blend between computer effect and live-action. But it gets so blended to the point I feel like I’m seeing ghosts with a soul and personality. This was ILM in their prime and it shows.
As said before, the stuff with Dr. Harvey and her daughter Kat are the better written parts of the movie. I feel its also because of how much they sell the fact they are interacting with CGI effects to the point you really feel like they are there. They are practically talking, fighting, flying and interacting with something not there which isn’t easy to do. They way they play off these characters can be a lot of fun. Again, Casper and Kat trying to fit in with who they are and Dr. Harvey’s long battle with the Ghostly Trio. Speaking of which, Fatso (Brad Garrett), Stinky (Joe Alaskey) and Stretch (Joe Nipote) are surprisingly entertaining. I find myself wishing the whole movie was more about them and less about Casper at times. Not to say that friendly spirit is uninteresting but there’s so much material written for these three that I can’t help but smile when I see them. Yeah the stuff they do is mean and cruel but they are just poltergeists. You expect them to be these nasty spirits that are mischievous and dangerous to be with. They are a huge highlight of the movie and even if some of the pop culture jokes they spew is unneeded, it still gets a laugh by the timing and delivery.
To say Casper is a perfect movie is an understatement. Its really a technical achievement but still packs entertainment value. The whole tone of the movie is so cartoony that you can’t help but admire its light tone and comedic beats. And that’s the correct term here, its a cartoon. Its very much what Roger Rabbit did for hand-drawn animation as this movie did for CGI animation. It provided you can give a three-dimensional being heart and soul no matter if they are meant to be living or dead. I don’t think its a masterpiece but you can tell there is a lot of effort and heart being placed here even when it starts to lag at times. This is my definition of the kind of movie that is mindless but ghostly fun at the same time.
Posted on October 22, 2014, in Horror-Wood 2014 and tagged Bill Pullman, Brad Garrett, cartoon, Casper, Cathy Moriarty, CGI, Christian Ricci, Comedy, Eric Idle, family, Fatso, Ghostly Trio, ghosts, Halloween, Harvey Comics, Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon, hybrid, Poltergiest, Roger Rabbit, Stinkie, Stretch, The Friendly Ghost, Universal Pictures. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.