Casper the Friendly Ghost is awfully friendly in “Casper” and more’s the pity. He’s so adorable that he might as well be the Pillsbury Dough Boy, with whom he shares more than a passing resemblance here.
The problem with Casper has always been his goodness. It’s much easier--and more fun--to get behind a cartoon villain. (Dramatically speaking, this applies to humans, too.) Goodness easily devolves into sappiness, and, in “Casper,” the Friendly One is upstaged from the start by his three goofball uncles, Stinkie, Stretch and Fatso. This trio rules the roost at Maine’s Whipstaff Manor, a dilapidated spread bequeathed to a shortchanged heiress (Cathy Moriarty) who wants the place de-ghosted so she and her weak-kneed assistant (Eric Idle) can root around for the buried treasure rumored within.
She hires Dr. Harvey (Bill Pullman), a “ghost therapist,” who arrives with his skeptical daughter Kat (Christina Ricci) in tow. Dr. Harvey dabbles with unsettled specters; it’s his unacknowledged way of trying to contact his dead wife, who is deeply missed. When he settles into Whipstaff, he doesn’t really expect anything spooky. He’s not really much of a believer either. (At best, he believes, ghosts are ghosts because they “lack resolution.”) But pretty soon he’s getting tweaked and clonked by the uncles, while Kat gets chummy with Casper.
Just about the only imaginative things about “Casper” are the digitized Amblin / Industrial Light & Magic effects involving the ghosts and a few fun-ride scenes with a mini-roller coaster inside the mansion. And even these are more cheesy than transporting. The emotional core of the movie is chilly; the effects surround a void. Kat’s loneliness has no emotional resonance. Ditto Casper’s. And, unlike Kat, Casper, try as he might, can’t even remember his early childhood. (At times the film threatens to become a weird kiddie recovered-memory scenario.)
Director Brad Silberling and screenwriters Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver can’t figure out how to play a lot of this material. They pour on the sentiment and then they pour on the dopiness. They work in celebrity cameos by--who else?--ghostbuster Dan Aykroyd, and by Mel Gibson, Rodney Dangerfield and others. They provide a twinge of funniness with a bit by Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello). But most of the time the film wavers and falters on its woozy way. The ghosts in this movie aren’t the only ones who lack resolution. So do the filmmakers.
Ricci was such a mock-sinister delight in the “Addams Family” movies that her mellowing here, once she hooks up with Casper, is a letdown. She’s charming and she can act, but it would a mistake if this powerhouse comic actress segued into conventional ingenue roles. Pullman looks dazed, as if he wasn’t sure where the ghosts were supposed to be in his scenes. (It might be funny if someone were to film one of these actors-vs.-special-effects jobs minus the effects.) Children in the low- to mid-single-digit-age bracket may not mind the movie’s bumbling tackiness but, then again, “Casper” is just the beginning of a vast marketing blitz. You can’t avoid the blitz--not unless you live in a convent--but you can duck the movie.
* MPAA rating: PG, for mild language and thematic elements. Times guidelines: It includes ghostly shenanigans that may be scary for the under-5 set.
Christina Ricci: Kat
Bill Pullman: Dr. Harvey
Cathy Moriarty: Carrigan
Eric Idle: Dibs
A Universal Pictures release of an Amblin Entertainment production in association with the Harvey Entertainment Co. Director Brad Silberling. Executive producers Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen, Jeffrey A. Montgomery. Screenplay by Sherri Stoner, Deanna Oliver, based on the character Casper the Friendly Ghost, created by Joseph Oriolo, in the story by Oriolo, Seymour Reit. Cinematographer Dean Cundey. Editor Michael Kahn. Costumes Rosanna Norton. Music James Horner. Production design Leslie Dilley. Set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.