“Casper: A Spirited Beginning” (1997)
by A.J. Hakari
Like “Street Sharks” and OK Soda, Casper was a big idea of the ’90s that didn’t really pan out. Based upon everybody’s favorite cartoon ghost, the film’s release came heralded by the aggressive marketing campaign and myriad product tie-ins of what surely had to be a box office smash. But as respectable as its receipts were, the flick performed below expectations, enough so that Universal jumped ship on a proposed sequel and handed the franchise to Saban Entertainment for a fast, thorough cheapening. 1997’s straight-to-video Casper: A Spirited Beginning sands off what edge and mystique its predecessor possessed, jettisoning its surprisingly somber ruminations on the acceptance of death and cutting-edge special effects in favor of cranking out a grating punfest laden with the era’s most half-assed CGI. From its scripting to its blending of live-action and animated characters, the degree to which a complete lack of care has infected nearly every aspect of this production is downright inexcusable. Casper wasn’t great, but it knew when and how to handle its younger viewers with a grown-up touch; A Spirited Beginning, however, holds nothing but contempt for its audience, its wellspring of creativity nothing more than a bottomless pit of fart jokes and desperate pop culture references.
When you die, you don’t go to Heaven — apparently, you hit the rails, instead. This is where young Casper (voice of Jeremy Foley) finds his newly-incorporeal self, on a literal ghost train bound for haunting school in the afterlife. However, he’s not too keen on spending his eternity spooking the daylights out of people, though that doesn’t stop folks from heading for the hills anyway when he arrives in quaint Deedstown ahead of schedule. But the fledgling phantom soon comes across a confidante in Chris (Brendon Ryan Barrett), a kid totally enamored with all things supernatural. He even introduces Casper to Stretch (voice of James Ward), Fatso (voice of Jess Harnell), and Stinky (voice of Bill Farmer), a trio of mischievous spirits who take the little ghost into their very own old dark house and start teaching him the tricks of the scaring trade. Unfortunately, trouble begins to brew on multiple fronts, as the specters must not only avoid lord of the dead Kibosh (voice of James Earl Jones) and his otherworldly wrath but also save their mansion from being torn down…by Chris’s workaholic father (Steve Guttenberg).
It’s easiest to view Casper: A Spirited Beginning not as a prequel to the 1995 film but rather as the launching pad for whatever the hell Saban had planned for the property. The setting’s been changed, actors like Ben Stein and Rodney Dangerfield show up in cameo roles different from those they had the last time around, and Casper’s tragic backstory is altogether swept under the rug. For as many family-friendly traits as the first movie embraced, A Spirited Beginning doubles down on them, yet a more kid-oriented tone isn’t necessarily a bad thing to pursue. Setting out to engage grade-schoolers with something less frightening is understandable, but future Bratz maestro Sean McNamara’s brand of sanitized storytelling strips away virtually all heart and emotion in the process. While Casper’s quest to find a family over having to frighten everyone away isn’t without its endearing qualities, darn near everything involving the “fleshies” is the stuff of Disney Channel nightmares. Rather than develop Chris’s frustrations at seeing his one living parent be so distant physically and emotionally, the matter is mostly breezed over with some melodramatic shouting and the inclusion of a ridiculously unmotivated love interest in Lori Loughlin’s teacher. All of this is in the service of getting to the next dead-on-arrival gag as soon as possible, a succession of toilet humor, Mission: Impossible parodies, and poor Richard Moll getting drenched in gallons of gunk that buries one’s patience six feet under before the first act is over.
On the other hand, I don’t know why I was expecting Casper: A Spirited Beginning to give a hoot about its script when what’s partially an effects-driven production can’t be bothered to cough up remotely appealing visuals. This isn’t to denigrate the quality of the movie’s CG animation, which had no chance of being up to the first one’s par and, to be honest, could’ve turned out much worse. But once one catches onto how poorly the cinematography and special effects have been integrated — how often the illusion of movement is faked by randomly swirling the camera about while Casper and company remain stationary — the absence of effort embeds itself into your brain, ruining all pretense of whimsy the flick had hoped to impart. If anything, at least the voice actors try as they can to keep things lively, as Foley gives us a likable enough Casper, the new Ghostly Trio performers match the original ones fairly accurately, and Jones’s booming timbre nicely perks up an otherwise generic villain. The same, however, can’t be said for the live-action ensembles, which comes evenly split between bored paycheck-cashers like Guttenberg or supporting players such as Michael McKean mugging up a storm and serving only to embarrass themselves in the attempt. Then we have Barrett, who isn’t without talent (and apparently left enough of a mark on the powers that be to have him voice the title ghost himself in 2000’s Casper’s Haunted Christmas) but obviously wasn’t given the best direction with his line readings. Whether he’s supposed to be sad or enthusiastic, Barrett’s energy and delivery are at Roberto Benigni levels from beginning to end, which would be reassuring if it didn’t mean Chris so frequently crossing the annoying brat line.
Regardless of its objectives and how passionately the filmmakers went about fulfilling them, Casper: A Spirited Beginning did little to extend the character’s pop culture shelf life. Another live-action/animation hybrid followed the next year before the franchise went full cartoon eventually, and while the ’95 flick is still enjoyed by certain nostalgic circles, there’s no such love for the quickie cash grab that tried hitching a ride on its ectoplasmic coattails. Casper: A Spirited Beginning is a frivolity that’s not about to cause irreparable harm to the growing minds that do take it in, but don’t expect it to value strong moral lessons any more than it does making sure that Junior sees those Power Rangers toys not-so-subtly nudged into frame.