Last month, when I looked at Casper The Friendly Ghost's 1995 foray into theatrical feature stardom, I mentioned that the film later received a spin-off cartoon series, The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper, which, much like the film itself, I consider to be criminally underrated. In lieu of an actual theatrical sequel, I think that Casper fans got a pretty sweet deal with this series - it was developed by Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver, who also wrote the screenplay for the 1995 movie, and a number of the original cast returned to reprise their roles (see below). Stoner and Oliver had previously worked on such other Amblin Television shows as Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures, and The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper plays recognisably like a cartoon within that same vein, in that it's every bit as smartly-written and subversive. So if you're wondering why it doesn't get half the publicity that those series do, it's because it aired on Fox Kids, which was something of a burial ground as far as zeitgeist was concerned. The series had a fairly decent run of it throughout the late 1990s, with a total of four seasons and fifty-two episodes under its belt, but it's fair to say that they haven't really seen the light of day much since. There were a handful of VHS releases in the 1990s, each with two episodes a piece, and the complete first season was distributed on two single-disc DVD releases in 2007, but the series in its entirety has never been made available on home media or streaming. Shame that, because as I say, I think it's a really fantastic cartoon and I wish it was better appreciated (much like the movie it's based on). In the meantime, I'm only too happy to step up and be its cheerleader.
The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper takes place after the events of the 1995 feature film. Following the disappearance of owner Carrigan Crittenden, Whipstaff Manor has become the full-time domicile of necromantic shrink Dr James Harvey and his teenage daughter Kat, who have learned to co-exist with the manor's resident wraiths, the amiable young Casper and his aggressive poltergeist "uncles", Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso (otherwise known as The Ghostly Trio). Casper is still struggling with the stigma of being living impaired, Kat is still struggling with the ignominy of being a less-than-ordinary kid, while Harvey is still struggling with the trials of being a single parent AND therapist to three disobedient poltergeists - he's given up trying to convince the Trio to "cross over" but still works with them in an effort to rein in their natural haunting tendencies, with as little success. The Trio are on loving terms with Harvey (although they really do love to wind him up) but are still inclined to scorn and subjugate Casper, and they do not get along with Kat (then again, few characters within the series do).
Here are a few notes regarding the series in general:
- All four of the main ghosts are voiced by their original voice actors from the 1995 film - Malachi Pearson (Casper), Joe Nipote (Stretch), Brad Garrett (Fatso) and Joe Alaskey (Stinkie), although Jess Harnell took over as Fatso's voice in later seasons. Harnell, best known as the voice of Wakko Warner on Animaniacs, was also movie alumni, having previously supplied Casper's Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation in the feature film.
- The A-list talent from the 1995 film, unsurprisingly, did not return. Kat and Harvey were played by Christina Ricci and Bill Pullman in the original movie, but here Kat is voiced by Kath Soucie, who also voiced Phil and Lil in Rugrats, while Harvey is voiced by Dan Castellaneta, who never did anything else of note.
- Casper now attends a school for young ghosts, where his classmates are Spooky (Rob Paulsen) and Poil (Miriam Flynn), two established characters from earlier incarnations of Casper who were not in the 1995 film. Spooky is a brash young wraith who is always keen to demonstrate his scaring prowess and enjoys showing up Casper, while Poil is an air-headed ghoul who is besotted with Spooky. Another addition is Casper's teacher, Ms Banshee (Tress MacNeille). She is a...banshee, strangely enough, meaning that she tends to raise her voice a lot, and she is greatly admired by the Ghostly Trio, who are constantly trying to impress her. Anyway, the concept of a school for young ghosts becomes hella depressing the instant you contemplate that these are all dead children who had their lives cut mercilessly short and are never actually going to grow up.* Worse still is the episode where Casper meets a family of 1960s hippie ghosts with two ghost babies, and you just know there is such a tragic backstory there.
- Amelia, Carrigan and Dibs do not appear in the series (presumably because they all "crossed over").
- A couple of characters who do return from the movie are Amber and Vic, the local popular kids and respective rivals of Kat and Casper. In the movie, they were played by Jessica Wesson and Garette Ratcliff Henson, and were low-level antagonists - Amber took a disliking to Kat and conspired to sabotage her Halloween party, while Vic feigned an interest in being Kat's date (much to Casper's chagrin) but was actually working in league with Amber. Their spiteful scheme was foiled by the Ghostly Trio, who scared them away from the manor. In the series, Amber (now voiced by Sherry Lynn) still looks down on Kat (and has three minions, all named Jennifer), and Kat is apparently still interested in Vic (again, to Casper's chagrin), despite him standing her up in the movie. Also, Kat's teacher is voiced by Ben Stein (grrr....). In the movie, Kat had another teacher named Mr Curtis, who was played by Wesley Thompson. Doesn't it just figure that they would get rid of their only African American character and replace him with Ben Stein?
- Curiously, the series doesn't have an opening title sequence. In lieu of an actual intro, we dive right into the episode as the Casper logo flashes across the screen. With the end credits it varies - some episodes have an outro sequence set in a graveyard with Amusing Tombstones (not unlike those from the early Treehouse of Horror installments of The Simpsons - my favourite is Glen and Glenda occupying the same burial plot) while the "Casper The Friendly Ghost" theme plays, whereas in others the end credits are rolled out across the bottom of the screen during the final minute of the episode. The lack of intro really baffles me, given that they had an established theme song ready to go; all they had to do was throw some clips together and be done with it.
- This shouldn't be too surprising given the Animaniacs kinship, but there is a LOT of fourth wall breaking in the series, compared to the movie, where the fourth wall breaking was fairly minimal (Stinkie looks at the camera twice, Casper winks at the camera at the end). Some of the more colourful elements of the film have been toned down a notch for television consumption, so that Stretch now says "heck" instead of "hell" and the Ghostly Trio no longer sing about beer. An awful lot of adult humour worms its way in regardless.
Given that we're already this far into the festive season, we may as well start with the series' Xmas episode, which first aired on December 21st 1996 and was released on VHS in 1997 by Universal Entertainment, alongside the episode "Three Ghosts and A Baby/Leave It To Casper". Each episode of The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper was divided into two main stories, with one or two smaller skits falling in between, and in this case the headline act is a segment called A Christmas Peril, in which the Ghostly Trio put an avaricious businessman in touch with his hidden vulnerabilities.
I have a theory that everything everywhere, provided it goes for on long enough, gets round to doing their variation on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol sooner or later. Disney did it, The Muppets did it, Animaniacs did it, Blackadder did it, and heck, there's even an official Animals of Farthing Wood version out there, somewhere, although you'll never find it. In addition, the studios seem to keep on cranking out new self-contained versions of the story to some capacity every year, whether we get Bill Murray, Kelsey Grammer or Guy Pearce donning Scrooge's nightcap. Why go to all the trouble of concocting a completely fresh and original Christmas story when the world clearly can't get enough of this seeing this exact same story regurgitated over and over? It may not surprise you to learn that Casper's seasonal episode was also a Christmas Carol variation, but if that strikes you as being a trite and overly cookie cutter route to travel, keep in mind that A Christmas Carol is a story about a man who turns over a new leaf following a series of overnight haunting from four ghosts, and Casper is a series all about the adventures of four ghosts, so in this case they were really only doing what the logic of their premise demanded. And this isn't your typical take on the Dickens classic either; when you have the Ghostly Trio spooking you along the path to redemption, you know you're going to have a particularly ghoulish time of it. That's another thing - not only is it a dead cert for Casper to pay homage to A Christmas Carol, but it's also a total slam-dunk in terms of which roles get allocated to which ghosts. It follows that Stinkie would be the Ghost of Christmas Past, as he's all about leaving offensive, lingering odors on whatever he touches. The imposing, indulgent Fatso is obviously our Ghost of Christmas Present, and finally Stretch, the scariest of the three, is a natural lock for Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Note that Jacob Marley does not figure here, although he does show up in another episode, "The Boo-Muda Triangle", in which Casper, Kat and Harvey get lost in the Bermuda Triangle with the ghost of Bob Marley, who reveals Jacob to have been one of his ancestors (are you still not convinced that you were sleeping on one of the greatest animated shows of all time?). Ignorance and Want also don't come up, which isn't terribly surprising, given that most kid-orientated retellings (and many adult versions) tend to avoid them like the plague, on account of their being one of the more disturbing aspects of Dickens' story**, although personally I think they missed a trick in not using Poil and Spooky in the roles. Finally, the Ebeneezer expy's redemption arc takes us to an outcome so bitterly ingenious that I'm amazed that it had never been used before (or maybe it had - like I say, the variations on this story are so innumerable that I suspect I've only actually seen a tiny percentile).
"A Christmas Peril" opens by establishing that the Ghostly Trio aren't all that hot on the Christmas spirit. Aside from offering the occasional opportunity to spook carolers naive enough to linger outside the manor, the holiday as a whole is too gaudy and mawkish for their discriminating tastes. Ordinarily they'd be able to conceal themselves from the season within the cold, dark corridors of Whipstaff Manor, only now that they share the manor with a couple of tinsel-loving bone-bags, there isn't much refuge to be found in there either. Things are shaken up when the residents of Whipstaff are unexpectedly joined by another trio of ghosts seeking a slightly different kind of refuge from the outside festivities. They are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, and, having tired of their seasonal gig of scaring money-grubbing misers into changing their ways, are hoping that they can lie low and bunk off on this particular Yuletide.
Kat: You're the guys who turned round Ebeneezer Scrooge? Please...
Past: We are! But he was easy compared to some of the others.
Future: There was that Nixon guy...three times we turned him around but it just wouldn't take!
To Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso, the notion of spending their Christmas scaring some fleshie fat cats sounds mighty enticing, and so they offer to fill in for their Dickensian house guests by converting whichever unsuspecting skinflint they were scheduled to go after this year. It transpires to be a greedy toy mogul named Ezra Hazard (guess that's a Hasbro reference), who purposely manufactures shoddy toys that fall apart when children play with them (so that parents will keep on having to shell out for replacements) and treats his employees like total refuse on the side. Yeah, Hazard's a baddun, but even for a man of his callousness, being spooked by the Ghostly Trio instead of the regular Christmas spirits is a disproportionately cruel twist of fate.
One of the reasons for A Christmas Carol's enduring popularity, I'll wager, is due to its timeless meditations on the nature of redemption, the potential for good in the very coldest of individuals, the inevitable discrepancy between the people we once were, the people we are now, and where we might be headed, and the tremendous difference a single person can make (when you think about it, the other enduring and much-parodied Christmas classic, It's A Wonderful Life, is basically a tweak on the very same formula). If you're hoping for such meditations here, then you're fresh out of luck. "A Christmas Peril" bears the unmistakable stamp of a Dickensian reworking written for jaded minds who don't really care for Dickensian reworkings, and the only tears shed therein are in response to getting a mouthful of raw onion rind blasted in one's eyeballs. "A Christmas Peril" is a very knowing take on the Dickens classic, one that trades on the viewer's (over) familiarity with the narrative in question. It knows that this is a story you've played out countless time before and possibly don't care to see again, and it repeatedly flags up whatever motions it goes through before desecrating them with joyous abandon. Hazard himself has a better grasp on the story he figures he's supposed to be getting than do the Trio, who have zero interest in the human element and are in it purely for the shits and giggles. Hazard deduces independently why his unscrupulous manufacturing policies might be having a detrimental effect on children's emotional well-being, as Stinkie distorts his childhood memory and makes it doubly traumatic by giving the young Ezra an angry skunk instead of a puppy, Fatso skips over his portion of the story completely, insisting that he's just there for the eats, and finally Stretch gives him the ultimate incentive to change by hitting him with the horrifying threat that when he dies and becomes a ghost, they'll make a point of hanging out with him for all eternity. This terrifies Hazard so much that, the following morning, he races to his workplace and declares that from now on, all Hazard toys will be made to last and all of his employees are in for generous Christmas bonuses. It sounds all well and good, except that he gets arrested, because security refuse to believe that the actual Ezra Hazard would say such things and assume that he's an imposter. Oh well, I'm sure his identity will be verified eventually. It's kind of a mean-spirited punchline and you've got to feel bad for Hazard, although it does raise an interesting point that most Carol adaptations brush over - what if the world isn't ready for this munificent new you? Sometimes people prefer the cold embrace of familiarity, rotten though it may be, over something as frightening as genuine change.
(Here's a hidden gag you might have missed - Hazard's tombstone in the future reads Admission: $25, Children: $26. Sounds like a steal by today's standards.)
In conclusion, "A Christmas Peril" is a lot of fun, although probably not the place to go for your fix of seasonal fuzzies (despite Stinkie's heartfelt declaration at the end that this is the best Christmas he ever had). But in that regard it's balanced out by its sister segment, Fright Before Christmas, which goes more sincerely for the emotional factor and has a positive message about forgiveness and tolerance. Just as every franchise everywhere eventually ends up doing a Christmas Carol variation, so too it's inevitable that they end up doing their variation on "A Visit From St. Nicholas". Here, Kat regales us with her account of how she and Casper kept watch on the night before Christmas in order to thwart the Ghostly Trio's scheme to scare Santa. Despite their best efforts, the instant he sets foot at Whipstaff Manor, Santa is abducted and terrorised by the Trio, but Kat and Casper manage to locate and rescue him, whereupon he rewards them with a bounty of presents. When the Trio sees this, they suddenly regret their actions and implore Santa to share some of the seasonal joy with them. Kat and Casper urge Santa not to, but he forgives the Trio and gives them their share, reminding Kat and Casper that it's better to rise above one's petty grudges and be kind and magnanimous wherever possible. Also, Casper gets to do his Schwarzenegger impression again, which I assume is Harnell.
In addition, there are two supporting skits sandwiched in between:
Ms Banshee's Holiday Hits: A faux TV commercial advertising a seasonal record album performed by Ms Banshee in her ear-bleeding banshee voice. "Not since those singing chipmunks has there been a Christmas album so unpleasant!" Eh, still sounds better to me than Band Aid.
Another Spooky and Poil Moment: And now for a real head-scratcher. In its original broadcast form, this episode contained a different skit, "Good Morning, Dr Harvey", a musical sequence reminiscent of "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story, in which Casper grows suspicious when Harvey tries to persuade him to go scaring with his uncles. For some reason, on the VHS release this was swapped out with "Another Spooky and Poil Moment", which was originally included as the supporting skit to the episode "Paranormal Press/Deadstock" (this must have been a last minute rearrangement, as the trailer at the front of the tape does indeed list "Good Morning, Dr Harvey" as part of the package). One of Poil's recurring shticks is that she takes everything that's said to her super literally, so when Spooky suggests they soothe things over with an irate Ms Banshee by "taking her something pretty", Poil responds by taking Ms Banshee's pretty negligee. Guess which one of them takes the blame? It does feel distinctly out of place amid the rest of this line-up, in that it doesn't have anything to do with the festive season. But then, neither did "Good Morning, Dr Harvey".
The episode ends with an epilogue to the "Christmas Peril" segment, in which the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future finally get over their seasonal fatigue and regret that they didn't rise to the challenge of spooking the bejesus from a deserving victim. They decide that there's still time, and check out who their fallback option was. Turns out, it's some guy in Washington named Newt. Bless you, festive spirits! Bless us, every one!
* Having said that, there is an episode where we flash back to Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso's school days, and they are visibly younger. Which by all rights doesn't make any sense. The Ghostly Trio definitely didn't enter the world in spectral form; they make reference to the fact that they're dead in virtually every episode. So...don't ask me how it works.
** Back when I was six, my class watched the 1984 adaptation with George C. Scott as Scrooge, and the Ignorance and Want scene was the one moment that genuinely scared me. A couple of years later, when I saw The Muppet Christmas Carol for the first time, I remember being really apprehensive toward the end of the Present segment, as I kept thinking, "Oh god, we're almost at the bit where he's going to open up his robes and reveal those horrible children!" I don't remember if I felt relieved or cheated that he didn't.