Saturday, 23 November 2019

Casper (1995): All of Harvey's Friends Are Dead, But That's Okay

Since I broached the subject about a month ago, let's talk about the time that Casper, that unusually benevolent, pint-sized wraith who'd previously starred in a series of theatrical cartoons from Famous Studios in the 1940s and 1950s, and later a series of comics by Harvey Comics, received his own big screen feature adventure, courtesy of Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg's production company. Casper was directed by Brad Silberling and released on May 26th 1995, at a time when computer-generated effects were beginning to gain more of a commanding presence in cinema - we were only a few months away from the release of Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated feature film, and for now Casper represented a major breakthrough all of its own, in boasting the first leading character to be created entirely with CGI and integrated into live action settings with flesh and blood co-stars. The beginning of the end, you might even say? Much as Casper is a misunderstood ghoul, I think Casper is a misunderstood flick, one that's easily dismissed as being little more than a playground for its flashy visual effects but has quite a bit more going for it than that.

Our story opens with Carrigan Crittenden (Cathy Moriarty), a gold-digging would-be socialite who is chagrined to discover that her late father has left all of his fortune to various wildlife charities and all she got from the deal is Whipstaff Manor, a condemned seafront property in the town of Friendship, Maine. She has a change of heart, however, when her long-suffering personal assistant Dibs (Eric Idle) discovers a hidden document in with the deeds, indicating that Whipstaff Manor actually harbours a secret wealth. Accessing the property proves to be another matter entirely, for while long devoid of human life, Carrigan hadn't banked on it being haunted by four ghosts. Casper (voice of Malachi Pearson), the ghost of a 12-year-old child, is the lonely misfit of the household, and is constantly bullied and subjugated by the other three, a malevolent poltergeist posse known as the Ghostly Trio (whom Casper identifies as his "uncles", although their living identities are not expounded on further). Heading the trio is the spindly snarker Stretch (Joe Nipote), who is the meanest and most intelligent of the three - there's also Fatso (Brad Garrett), an obtuse glutton, and Stinkie (Joe Alaskey), a vulgar prankster. Barely tolerated by his fellow specter, except as a dogsbody, Casper has an innate curiosity about reconnecting with the living, but finds little sympathy there either, for most people become shrieking wrecks at the mere sight of him. When Carrigan and Dibs show up at the manor, Casper tries to befriend them and gets the classic reaction; worse still, they attract the attentions of the three poltergeists, who really give them something to scream about. Carrigan enlists various forces to rid the manor of the ghosts, but to no avail - after burning through the best (cue clever cameos from Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci and Dan Aykroyd as Ray Stantz), she turns to the rest, and finds Dr James Harvey (Bill Pullman) a parapsychologist and self-proclaimed "ghost therapist", who purports to be able to convince ghosts to stop haunting by directing them through their "unfinished business". Harvey's commitment to his work has rendered him a pariah both professionally and socially, not least because his obsession with helping ghosts move on from whatever's pinning them to this mortal coil is very transparently rooted in his own inability to let go of his deceased wife, Amelia. This ostracisation has spread to his teenage daughter Kat (Christina Ricci), a girl without a friend in the world, in whom Casper may finally have found a kindred spirit.

I was ten years old when Casper first hit. I went to see it and was as blown away by it as any film I had ever seen back then. I dug the visual effects, I found many of the individual sequences to be tremendously exciting (particularly the sequence where Harvey faces off against the Ghostly Trio), I got a little tearful during all the third-act pathos, and I give extra special props to the lady in the seat behind me who gasped indignantly at the part where Carrigan looms over Dibs and yells, "THE BITCH IS BACK!" It's a very memorable experience from my early days of cinema-going. I held such fond, loving memories of this film that I was slightly taken back, some years later, to discover that Casper is not exactly what you'd call a universally beloved flick, with many being inclined to regulate it to the same junkyard of trash 1990s live action cartoon recreations as Richie Rich and The Flintstones (there was a time when The Addams Family and The Addams Family Values used to be cast on that pile, but people have decided that they like those movies after all). As with Benji The Hunted, it's a case of this film's fanbase consisting predominantly of myself and Roger Ebert. For as little respect as this film is afforded, every time I revisit it I am reminded of why I loved it so much as a child and have the living snot disarmed out of me all over again. Firstly, the visual effects have stood the test of time - some of the CGI might seem a tad rudimentary to modern eyes (naturally, the ghosts based on cartoon characters look a whole lot better than those based on real people), but Casper and the Trio are still all so fantastically fluid and expressive in their individual movements and mannerisms, and, as with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it's a film that benefits immeasurably from the sheer believability with which the ghosts and humans appear to interact. More importantly, the film has heart, although for me personally that heart lies less in whether Casper and Kat will overcome their social and physical differences than it does in Harvey's whole arc, his quest for reaffirmation and the unexpected solidarity he discovers in the Ghostly Trio. Bill Pullman, I think, is wonderful in this film - god knows, I wasn't a fan of that other special effects blitz he was in around the middle of the decade, but here he's truly adorable as Harvey, a socially paralysed dork whose earnest demeanor barely conceals the deep existential despair underpinning his day-to-day being. Some find Moriarty's performance as Carrigan to be overly theatrical (no doubt that she's trying to out-cartoon the cartoon ghosts), but I think she's a fun and underrated villain with some good dialogue.

Having said all that, I can understand why some people would struggle with this film. It is rather a peculiar mishmash of elements - a goofball special effects extravaganza with conspicuously morbid undertones, and a whole lot of touchy-feels. It's a silly live action cartoon that strives to be a little dark and dirty (but isn't a dark comedy, despite its occasionally flippant approach to to the issues it raises) and ultimately wants to say something meaningful about life and death, love and loss, grief and letting go. The end result is film dealing explicitly with grave subject matter that flitters through such a dizzying variety of tones - zany, sentimental, and at times a mite mean-spirited - that as a concoction it becomes somewhat grotesque, and I think that's what alienates some viewers. Personally, I suspect the film's offbeat style and its upfront grappling with the issue of mortality - not least, the mortality of its target audience - has an awful lot to do with what endeared it to me as a kid, but I appreciate why some might find its discordant treatment of the subject off-putting.

Among the film's detractors were our friends at Halliwell's Film Guide, who praised the "spectacular" visual effects but found the film "tasteless in its attitudes to life and death". I've pondered what, specifically, would stand out as so tasteless about it, and I will confess that as fervidly as I'll defend this movie, there is one aspect of it that I do not like, and which has never sat well with me, and that is the entire manner in which Carrigan's arc is resolved. See (SPOILERS!), Harvey's hypothesis that ghosts are bound to the living world by some kind of "unfinished business" turns out to be entirely astute. Most ghosts are held captive by an unfortunate paradox, whereby they are driven by a strong sense of purpose but fated to lose all conscious awareness of who they were, somewhat impeding their ability to fulfill that purpose; should a ghost actually complete their unfinished business, however, they will "cross over" into the afterlife, from which ordinarily they cannot return. With Kat's help, Casper remembers that in life he was the son of a renowned inventor named McFadden, and between them they uncover the "Lazarus", a project that McFadden had been working on following the death of his son, with the power to restore a ghost to a life, but was never able to utilise due to his being declared insane and presumably dying in an institution somewhere. Casper and Kat manage to activate the Lazarus, but discover that, due to the limited quantities of life-giving fluid, the machine only has the capacity to be used once. Meanwhile, the poltergeists have gone out for a wild night on the town, taking Harvey with them, and Carrigan and Dibs seize the opportunity to infiltrate the manor, but are unable to access the vault reputed to contain the treasure. However, they stumble across the Lazarus and, learning of its capabilities, Carrigan steals the fluid, musing that it would be so much easier to break into the vault if one of them were a ghost and had the ability to float through walls. She then attempts to murder Dibs, promising to later restore him to life using the Lazarus, only to get herself killed in the effort. So she becomes a ghost and uses her newly-acquired spectral powers to crack the vault and seize the chest of treasure within, much to the protests of Casper and Kat. Dibs shows up and attempts to betray Carrigan, intending to keep the treasure for himself and leave her permanently stranded as a ghost - she responds by punching him and sending him flying through the window of the manor, presumably to his death. Kat and Casper then quiz Carrigan on what her unfinished business is. Carrigan triumphantly declares that she has none, now that she finally has what she came here for...whereupon her spirit is hijacked by an overpowering light that proceeds to obliterate her. Realising her error, Carrigan desperately pleads that she has plenty of unfinished business, but it's too late - the powers that be clearly heard her, and there are no take backs.

With Carrigan gone, Casper and Kat reclaim both the fluid and the chest, and we get our payoff to the whole treasure saga, which is that - PSYCH! - there was no treasure. Turns out, that hidden message on the deeds all boiled down to a gigantic misunderstanding. It was simply a leftover prop from a role-playing game that McFadden used to play with Casper. And what was actually in that treasure chest? A worthless baseball. Well, not entirely worthless, in that it holds tremendous sentimental value to Casper: "It's autographed by Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers! My favourite player!" That, folks, is our punchline.

So yes, we were in textbook MacGuffin territory all along with this whole treasure business, in that the treasure itself (or lack of) has no actual bearing on any of the plot resolution, and is there purely to give Carrigan her motivation for doing all that she does. The revelation that she got her panties in such an ungodly twist over a meagre baseball is clearly intended to be humorous, but falls flat - not so much because it's a weak punchline to such a pivotal arc, but because it seems like awfully flippant payoff in light of the fact that two people just lost their lives in pursuit of this non-existent treasure. (Technically, Dibs' fate is unknown - it's possible that he survived, although I can't say I'm loving his odds.) On that note, Casper and Kat deliberately goaded Carriagn into professing that she has no unfinished business, knowing full well what would happen if she did, so...arguably, you could say that they murdered her. Perhaps "murder" is a concept that only applies to corporeal beings, but at any rate they destroyed her ghost, and seem quite remorseless about the entire affair. And over what? A baseball signed by Duke Snider. (Okay, the fluid as well, but I'm still not comfortable with the fact that this was still a major factor in what such a dramatic life and death struggle came down to.)

I get the intention, of course. Carrigan and Dibs were victims of their own avarice, obsessiveness and superficiality. The whole purpose of the alleged treasure turning out to be something as inconsequential as a baseball (even one autographed by Duke Snider) is to make a point about how ridiculous and misspent those aspirations were from the start. Casper pushes the argument, with all the cold-blooded ferocity of the Coen brothers' Fargo (1996), that the pursuit of personal and material gain will inevitably coax out the mindless, self-destructive monsters in us all, a struggle that in the end is absolutely not worth the bloodshed. For the treasure to be a beloved personal item of Casper's, and the map part of a bonding ritual he once shared with his father, likewise provides a clear contrast of values, with Carrigan's grasping rapacity playing off against Casper's guilelessness. It isn't too much of a stretch to infer that Whipstaff Manor does contain a treasure, but it's not one that Carrigan, who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, can actually use. It's also certainly not that stupid baseball. It would be easy enough to argue that the actual treasure lay in love and friendship, but I would go a step further and suggest that the real treasure to be unearthed at Whipstaff Manor is life itself. After all, we have the Lazarus, and that is a pretty remarkable find. Another reason, I suppose, why Halliwell's might find the film's outlook on life and death "tasteless" is the entire plot point of the Lazarus. We have a machine that can subvert the natural order and bring the dead back to life, and while the film does take a dim view on those who would abuse such a device for nefarious purposes, no one questions the broader ethical ramifications of McFadden's god-playing aspirations. But then the purposes of the Lazarus are largely symbolic. This is a film about a ghost who's been dead and lost for some time and who, through his experiences at the manor, finds a renewed purpose and, with the restoration of his life, a better understanding of how to live it. All of that does indeed apply to Casper, but it applies doubly to Harvey who, as I've already indicated, has the most compelling arc out of the cast. What you need to bear in mind about Harvey is that he is already dead before the movie begins - he is not a ghost in the literal sense (although he does become one later on in the film), but he exists as a figurative ghost, one who has become disconnected from life because he is so heavily fixated with holding on to the past. Harvey is unprepared to confront the future until he feels he has been reconciled with what fate has forced him to leave behind; over the course of the film, however, he gains a new perspective, one that enables him to see a way through his grief and insecurity (ultimately it is Harvey, and not Casper, who is restored to life via the Lazarus), and rejoins the living, through the acceptance he finds among the dead. The treasure at the manor, then, is the possibility of a brand new dawn, of new hope and momentum following loss.

It's easy enough to draw parallels between Carrigan's fanatical pursuit of the phantom treasure and Harvey's relentless quest to be reunited with Amelia, whom he doggedly believes to still be out there in the form of a ghost. In both cases, we have characters who are clearly damaging themselves for the sake of something they suppose to be there on the basis of only conjecture and assumption. But the most compelling analogue for Carrigan's disturbing final demise lies with Casper himself. For he, like Carrigan, was cut down at the height of his exaltation, and by his own steadfast refusal to relinquish personal acquisition. His memories of his past life finally restored, Casper recounts to Kat how he became a ghost - he had begged his father to buy him a sled, and when his father relented, Casper was so delighted that he went out into the snowy landscape and played with it to a dangerous degree: "I couldn't stop, I was having so much fun. Then it got late, it got dark, it got cold. And I got sick. My dad got sad." The whole notion of a sled embodying the tipping point between a lost innocence and an altogether more tumultuous twist of fate is of course evocative of Orson Welles' much-admired classic Citizen Kane (1941), to an extent that I presume can only be deliberate. Whereas Kane's final gasp on his deathbed was a lament for the childhood sled he regretted leaving behind on the road to power and success (that is, a yearning for the simpler, gentler life he could otherwise have led), Casper's downfall came in his unwillingness to be parted from his own beloved sled. Casper wished to remain where he was, in that moment of carefree happiness for all eternity, oblivious to the fact that the world around him was already changing. Casper aspired to freeze time, and himself became frozen, literally and figuratively, forever stranded in spiritual limbo in the form of a living impaired twelve-year-old. Casper's grasping comes from a more innocent place than Carrigan's, but both were ultimately misdirected by the assumption that everything they would ever need was right there in their hands, and that all they had to do was to keep a hold of it. The message, in both cases, is that anyone who tries to grab hold of life and bend it to their will does so to their own detriment.

A common connection linking Casper's predicament to all of the main humans is the sensation that life is something that is out there and is passing them by. Carrigan believes that she could be living the high life if she could just get her hands on the treasure inside the manor. Kat, having been forced to relocate so many times owing to her father's nomadic lifestyle, has never had the opportunity to settle within any one community and form any real connections or a sense of belonging; she is a kindred spirit to Casper because she, like film, feels afloat, an empty shell without an identity or any firm relationship with the past, the present or the future. Kat, unlike her father, aspires to move on from their family's tragedy, but feels guilt in doing so; at one point, she discloses to Casper her fear that she is starting to forget her mother. And finally we have Harvey, who is the most living impaired of them all, having died a clear emotional death with the literal death of Amelia. Harvey has become a ghost, not unlike the ones he professes to be helping, driven to walk the Earth by an unfinished business that he has no means of ever fulfilling. When Kat challenges her father on his unrelenting conviction that Amelia is now a ghost, he insists that, "She is, she has unfinished business," without articulating what that business might be exactly, making it painfully evident that he projects his own lack of resolution and devastation at having had his marital bliss cut short onto his deceased wife. Harvey spends his present pining for the past and mourning the cancelled future, all while attempting to avoid facing up to the abyss of uncertainty that lies ahead. Harvey, like Kat, has lost his connection to the wider world; on the journey up to Friendship he makes it clear just how devoid his own life is of friends. His relationship with his daughter represents his only strong and stable association with another human being, and Harvey is all-too aware that Kat is already a teenager and beginning to move in her own direction. Kat will grow and change and Harvey, who feels unable to progress, understands that the time will come when he inevitably will be left behind. Harvey does not attempt to stop Kat from growing - as a character, he simply doesn't exude that level of authority. His reaction to Kat's incoming puberty is one more of disconcertment and deflated powerlessness. He permits Kat to hold a Halloween party in the manor for her new classmates and to make plans to bring a date, but the knowledge that Kat's attentions are shifting toward the outside world, coupled with his weariness at being unable to fix the manor's ghost problem, pushes him into a state of deep despondence, or what the Ghostly Trio refer to as a "fleshie breakdown."

Harvey forges a re-connection with life, ironically, through his connection with three dead guys. The Ghostly Trio begrudgingly allow Harvey to remain at the manor after he defeats them in a confrontation, but are largely unreceptive to his efforts to counsel the scaring tendencies out of them. However, when the poltergeists learn of Harvey's longing to be reunited with Amelia, Stretch makes him a proposition - they will help him find Amelia if he agrees to convince Carrigan to leave them alone. Harvey agrees, but at first it's not clear if either party intends to uphold their side of the bargain, particularly as the Trio immediately seize the opportunity to play a cruel prank on Harvey. Nevertheless, as time goes by the poltergeists grow to feel a genuine affinity for Harvey, who in turn begins to admire the camaraderie between the Trio, their zest for their afterlife, and their ability to exist unburdened by either the pains of the past or the fear of the future. They are not concerned that life is out there and is passing them by, for as they see it, life is something that is severely oversold. As Harvey observes, "You say, I'm a ghost. You look life in the face and say, I don't need you!" As a result, he revises his previously-held view that ghosts are inherently out of place in the land of the living. To be a ghost is to exist without resolution, and Harvey comes to see that as indicative not necessarily of a disordered despairing, but of a tremendous adaptability. It is the ability to keep enduring, long after the world has written you off as past your expiry date. The poltergeists become his salvation, but this in itself nearly takes a dark turn, when the Trio, having extended their esprit de corps to Harvey, conspire to kill him so that he can truly become one of them, reasoning that they would be doing him a favour by putting him out of his misery. They are unable to go through with this, however, when Harvey tells them how much their acceptance means to him and announces his intention to defend their right to continue haunting the manor, and it dawns on the Trio that murdering the only fleshie willing to accept them as they are would be a heinous thing to do. (This is another reason why you will never convince me that this isn't one of the greatest family movies of all-time - we reach a point in the narrative where we get a sequence dedicated to an explicit display of heartfelt love between a man and three malevolent spirits, which is exactly the kind of mind-blowing awesomeness that made my own ten-year-old spirit soar.)

The Trio considers subjecting Harvey to a brutal initiation ceremony.

Unfortunately, Harvey meets with an accident on his bender with the poltergeists, falls into an open trench and dies anyway. His moment of death is, somewhat gallingly, played entirely for laughs, although there is great pathos later on when Kat encounters him as a ghost and realises that he has already forgotten her, thus turning the tables in their relationship dynamic. Now, Kat is the one in danger of being left behind. Some might feel there is a slight discrepancy here, as Harvey seems to forget about his past life as soon as he becomes a ghost, whereas Carrigan clearly remembered what she was doing within the brief time she had. You could chalk that up, if you so chose, to the respective mindsets of the characters when they died (since Carrigan was very determined, and fixated on the prospect of becoming a ghost in order to infiltrate the vault, even if she intended for the experience to be Dibs', whereas Harvey was in an intoxicated state and fairly oblivious), but from a thematic perspective I would argue that Harvey's amnesia works primarily as a means of illustrating his personal dilemma. For Harvey, there is immense attraction in being a ghost, and in the ability to shed all conscious awareness of the life he leaves behind - upon surveying his new spectral form, he declares, "I'm free! I've never felt so good in my life." It offers Harvey a release from his grief, and the opportunity to discard all traces of his former identity and no longer be burdened (at least knowingly) by any of the personal attachments or obligations he held during life, dulling him to the hurt of anything that might have come before, or may have threatened to happen in the future - as Casper had earlier mused, "When you're a ghost, life doesn't matter that much any more." This freedom from his personal demons has, however, come at an obvious cost to Harvey, in that it also means having to sever himself from everything that once gave his life fulfillment and meaning. And yet, in the end his bond with Kat proves too powerful, and he discovers that he cannot follow his poltergeist friends all the way down to the hedonistic line. Kat gestures to him with her pinky, replicating the "pinky swear" that she and Harvey had made earlier in the film and reminding Harvey of their physical and emotional connection. At this point, Harvey gains an awareness of his situation, and is devastated on realising the barrier that has been driven between himself and Kat. Casper comes to the rescue, and allows Harvey to take his place within the Lazarus, even if it means forfeiting his only prospect of ever again becoming one of the living.

Harvey is literally restored to life via the Lazarus, but his resurrection also signifies his coming alive for the very first time in the film, in that he has finally figured out how to move forward while grappling with feelings of grief and uncertainty. If to be a ghost is to exist without resolution, then to be alive is to live with impermanence, and Harvey realises that both are vital qualities in order to navigate in a world where the past and the future alike are so ill-defined. He emerges with a fortified commitment toward Kat, understanding the importance of always being there for her, even as she continues to move in her own direction - this much is evident in his encouraging her to join the Halloween party as he stands back and lingers upon the sidelines. This reaffirmation of his parental responsibilities does not, however, negate the lessons he learned from his experiences with the poltergeists - thanks to the Trio, he has a renewed sense of belonging and a greater resilience to the capriciousness of life. He is truly a man who has learned how to live with the specter of mortality hanging over him. Unlike the ghosts, he is not able to look life in the eye and declare that he does not need it - his obligation to Kat keeps him grounded, and willing to weather life's heartbreaks for her sake - but he does end up rejecting the ideal of a pristine, perfectly tied-up life, which he assumed had been lost with Amelia but likely never existed in the first place. As we learned from Casper's sorry backstory, life is not for the grabbing, pinning down and safe containing, and anyone who strives for such an existence would be as misguided and bound for destruction as Carrigan over that fictitious treasure. Harvey understands that in order to carry on he must be prepared to live with the holes that can never be filled, the cracks that will always be visible and the questions that may never be answered. Crucially, he remains present for his daughter but retains his friendship with the Trio, indicating that he now has his own individual new path ahead of him, in addition to backing up his daughter as she sets off down her own.

Of course, Harvey does get resolution, of sorts, when Amelia (Amy Brenneman) shows up at the end of the film, having been summoned by the Ghostly Trio, who let her know that Harvey was searching for her (thus fulfilling their end of the bargain and demonstrating that they they are truly Harvey's friends), although she does so largely to call Harvey out for projecting his own feelings of deficiency onto her ("I have no unfinished business. Please don't let me be yours.") She appears not as a ghost, as Harvey had always anticipated, but as an angel (Stinkie had effectively told Harvey this much earlier on, when he said of Amelia, "she's always been an angel to me"). I'd note that, for the most part, the film tries to avoid explicitly aligning itself with any specific branch of religiosity, hence why it remains so vague on the issue of what afterlife the ghosts actually "cross over" into, but making Amelia into an angel is something of a necessary evil in order to clearly illustrate that she's transcended the worldly attachments and appetites that keep both the ghosts and humans tethered to the living world.* Amelia does not yearn for anything more from life, because she feels that she already experienced the best it had to offer within the time she had, however truncated. We also need to account for Amelia's Blue Fairy-esque ability to turn Casper into a living boy; in gratitude for his willingness to put her family's needs above his own, Amelia grants him his wish, albeit with a major limitation - she can restore Casper to life, but only for a single evening. Casper accepts this arrangement, and takes the opportunity to join the Halloween party downstairs and share a dance and ultimately a kiss with Kat (in his living form, Casper is played by a young Devon Sawa, who is very effective in the role, in that he does emit this distinctly spooky, otherworldly quality). Compared to his previous rapacity over the sled, Casper now appreciates that the defining quality of life is its impermanence - ultimately, all things must pass, and all he can do is go forth and take advantage of the time that he has. Meanwhile, Amelia reinforces to Harvey the necessity of living with uncertainty - when he admits that he doesn't know what he's doing, she responds, "What parent does?"

This being a 90s Hollywood blockbuster, Casper ends, inevitably, with the reaffirmation of the traditional family unit. Harvey may be a single father tasked with raising a teenage daughter by his lonesome, but Amelia assures him that she'll still have a part in this, as she'll be watching over them all the while; furthermore, she tells him that the time will come when they'll all be together again, indicating that their marital and familial bonds will ultimately endure, the restoration of the family guaranteed as the restoration of an intrinsic cosmic order. (Actually, in spite of Amelia's parting remarks, I like to think that when Harvey dies for the second time he'll stick around with his friends the Ghostly Trio and fulfill his obvious destiny to make them into the Ghostly Quartet - they're the ones we've spent the entire movie watching him get close to, after all.) The final scene, however, shows Kat and Harvey at the abandoned Halloween party, once again deserted by the outside world,  as they privately continue the celebration with Casper and the Ghostly Trio, the six of them now all functioning together as the world's most unconventional family. The closing image, then, is one of unity among pariahs, social outcasts who are all quite happy and comfortable with themselves because they have one another's affirmation. The issues are not entirely cut and dried - the Ghostly Trio may have come through for Harvey, but there is nothing, beyond that final image of unity, to indicate that their relationship with their nephew has improved (Casper and the Trio actually interact surprisingly infrequently throughout the film, for they are each so tied up in Kat and Harvey's respective narrative strands). Moreover, there is an unspoken sadness in the implication that the dance and the kiss that Casper was able to share with Kat constitute the full extent to which their puppy love is ever likely to go. For as long as he remains a ghost, Casper is doomed to stay twelve years old forever, while Kat, as Harvey and Amelia jointly acknowledge, is already a teenager, and the gap between them is only going to widen as time goes on and Kat progresses ever deeper into puberty. Eventually Casper, like Harvey, will have to deal with the inevitability of Kat moving on and leaving him behind. But then that's for the future to bear out. All we have now is the present.

Here are a few of my more random observations:

  • The Lazarus worked, I assume, by using that "primordial soup mix" to recreate Harvey's body from scratch. In which case, his old body is presumably still out there, lying at the bottom of that trench in a bloodied, mangled state? That's a grim thought.
  • On the subject of bodies, if we're to assume that Dibs did indeed bite the dust when Carrigan sent him hurtling through the window (and we have every reason to believe he did), then presumably his dead body is still lying right there outside the manor while all those kids are inside partying? Again, grim. The first teens to sneak out into the grounds for a quick spliff are in for the shock of their lives, never mind one of the dancers morphing into a ghost before their eyes.
  • Aside from the whole business with Carrigan and the baseball, there's only one other notable nitpick I have (well, actually two - Ben Stein irritates the hell out of me, and I'd sooner he wasn't in this movie at all, but he's only there for about a minute and we get his part out of the way nice and early, so I suppose I can deal with it). That's that Fatso somehow knows Harvey's name during the "Three Musketeers" portion of their confrontation, before he formally announces it to Stretch during their plunger/golf club clash. Now, the Trio had already had that moment where they possess Harvey by crawling inside his head and warping his self-perception (a light-hearted nod to that horrendous face-peeling sequence from the movie Poltergeist), so you could argue that they'd gleaned some personal information from within his mind. All the same, it does somewhat undermine the impact of Harvey's triumphant response when Stretch challenges him as to who he thinks he is: "Dr James Harvey, your therapist!"
  • Let's touch briefly on a pet peeve of mine about 1990s cinema in general - the theme songs. While it had long been commonplace for Hollywood movies to come with their own tie-in pop numbers (that way, you could have a hit single on the side and promote further awareness of your picture - synergy, people!), I think it was around the time of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves onward that we started to see a trend wherein all Hollywood theme songs became arbitrary power ballads that were only very tenuously linked to the content of the movie itself. Gone were the days when a theme song actually bore the name of the movie in the title and was very clearly, unambiguously about the movie in question (eg: "Ben" by Michael Jackson, and "Pet Sematary" by Ramones, which may have been one of the last of its kind). The problem with these 90s theme songs is that they were, in most cases, entirely interchangeable - you could swap the theme songs for Con Air, Up Close And Personal and Armageddon and they all would all make every bit as much sense. Casper was no exception, with "Remember Me This Way" by Jordan Hill filling in the honors. This one at least ties in with the film's key theme about learning to let go and accept impermanence; obviously, the lyrics apply to Harvey and Amelia, but I suppose they also encapsulate Casper's awareness that he can't actually accompany Kat on her journey through adolescence. Nowadays, movies seldom get original theme songs at all - why create something new, when you can play to the nostalgia crowd by pulling out something familiar and retro? - so against my better judgement I find myself becoming wistful for the days when we had all these music videos consisting of a singer standing around idly while a bunch of clips from the movie played.

Finally, Casper never got a proper sequel. One was apparently scripted, and the film was certainly enough of a box office success to have justified it, only instead they decided to go the DTV prequel route, and plans for a theatrical sequel ultimately fizzled. It did, however, get a spin-off animated series, The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper (as was also standard procedure in the 1990s), which served as a direct sequel to the movie. If I do say so it was pretty damned excellent; in fact, it might even get my vote for most underrated animated series of the 90s. If you don't believe me, then I'd advise you to check out "Three Ghosts and a Baby", which is the episode where Harvey accidentally hypnotises Casper into reverting to an infantile state and the Ghostly Trio end up having to care for him. Trust me when I say that you're in for the funniest eight minutes of your life.

* In a way it also acts as a nice segue into Silberling's following film, City of Angels (1998), a remake of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987), which reexamined the issue of mortality, this time from an angelic perspective.


  1. Leonard Maltin also really didn't care for this, giving it a BOMB rating; rather pointed given that he's a classic animation historian as well as a film critic. He gave the same rating to Robert Altman's Popeye, a film I'm very fond of.

    This was actually the first time I saw a film at the cinema and thought "hmm, I don't like this" (at age 8). Now my previous trips had included "classics" like Tom & Jerry: The Movie and Mr Nanny, so it's clearly as much an age thing as the film itself. I did revisit it a couple of years ago; I'm still not really a fan, but it has some interest. I was surprised that it really earns its PG rating and is pretty slow to start; I wonder if they hoped it would catch on with the baby boomers who grew up with the Famous and Archie Casper material as much as kids?

    I was also surprised that they straight up stole the "living impaired" line from Treehouse of Horror III (cited as a highlight in Ebert's review no less); would never get away with that kind of blatant plagiarism now.

    1. I've not read Maltin's review, but my understanding is that he objected to them giving Casper a backstory establishing that he was the ghost of a dead child (although I suspect most people kind of always assumed that he was - hence there was that joke in The Simpsons about him being the ghost of Richie Rich). For me, though, the film's heavy focus on mortality and bereavement is one of the things that really stands out about it, even if its cartoony approach inevitably won't be to all tastes.

      I've not seen Mr Nanny; my brother was a big Hulk Hogan fan back in the day, so I'm amazed that we never wound up with that in our collection.

      I suspect that the PG rating was as largely down to the language/innuendo, which is surprisingly colourful given the source material (Kat tells Stretch to "piss off", Fatso calls Kat a "closet case", Carrigan is twice described as a bitch, etc). Still, I think that may have been a trend for 90s family films in general, given that Ms Doubtfire has a similar amount of cursing. (I was surprised that Fly Away Home has a character scream out "Holy shit!" and still got a U rating in the UK.)

      Good catch on the "living impaired" thing, although I can think of a more egregious example from just this year - I didn't see The Secret Life of Pets 2, but as I recall the trailer had a bit with these two kittens who say, "We start fires!" in EXACTLY the same way as that kid from "You Only Move Twice". Somehow it didn't strike me as coincidental. Then again, The Simpsons have done everything first.

    2. That was the gist of it. Also, watching Siskel & Ebert's review it seems Siskel actually gave it a marginal thumbs up, enjoying the effects and the Ghostly Trio but not necessarily caring for the rest of it.

    3. Hmm, you are right. In that case I'm not sure where I got the impression that he liked it a lot less than Ebert, as they seem to be more or less on the same page in their TV review (but for the fact that Ebert seemed to go for the stuff with Kat and Casper more).