Casper the Friendly Ghost was - uh, born, as it were, some 50 years ago at Paramount Pictures’ Famous Studios branch, the most insipid and precious cartoon studio in Hollywood.
Cartoonist Joe Oriolo’s treacly concept, for all its morbid sentimentality, caught on promptly and has endured even beyond the demise of the theatrical animated cartoon. Casper, the spirit of a deceased child, thrives today in a line of variously authorized and “bootleg” videocassettes containing not only his original adventures of the big screen but also the less painstakingly animated TV cartoons of the 1960s.
Now, what happens when you mix such baby-boomer nostalgia with the limitless financial resources of the Steven Spielberg team is this: You get “Casper,” a multimillion-dollar feature-length film based on a concept that was designed to hold up for the running time of a seven-minute cartoon.
It’s a pretty good movie, even so, with plot holes as big as Pasadena and enough breathtaking special effects to take one’s mind off all the lapses of script sense.
Christina Ricci, in a welcome stretch from her limited “Addams Family” character, steals the show as a schoolgirl who develops a bond with Casper, the one well-intentioned wraith among four departed spirits in a haunted mansion. Seems the girl’s dad (Bill Pullman) is a spook investigator, and he has been hired by a mean-spirited woman (Cathy Moriarty, oozing malevolence) to chase away the spirits that guard her late father’s estate.
It develops that Ricci’s character, like Casper, is longing for friendship. A bond develops, and the “acting” by the specialeffects ghost (voiced by newcomer Malachi Pearson and animated in fully dimensional terms by Industrial Light & Magic) is convincing enough that the little apparition seems genuinely to exist.
Director Brad Silberling entrusts the dramatic resonance to his able cast, leaning on Ricci for the film’s emotional core and letting Cathy Moriarty and Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle, as her cohort, account for the comical villainy.
“Casper” is not so much about narrative coherence - though that would have been nice - as it is about taking effects technology to a new level and thrilling the popcorn audience in the process. The film also makes an effective 100-minute commercial for future commercialization of the Friendly Ghost’s trademark.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Casper” Location: Lincoln Heights, Newport and Showboat cinemas Credits: Directed by Brad Silberling, starring Christina Ricci, Bill Pullman, Cathy Moriarty, Eric Idle Running time: 1:40 Rating: PG