The 90s on Netflix: Casper (1995)
Mark Harrison | On 11, Oct 2019
Director: Brad Silberling
Cast: Bill Pullman, Christina Ricci, Cathy Moriarty
Watch Casper online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. In this column, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
Who says comic book movies aren’t art? Whatever else you can say about this 1995 Harvey Comics adaptation, it’s the best-looking Casper movie it was possible to make at the time, with innovative visual effects, nigh-unimprovable production design, and cinematography by the great Dean Cundey. And yet, the film itself is haunted by its ghost-writers, including an uncredited J.J. Abrams.
Post-Addams Family and Flintstones, this was another big-budget 1990s revamp of a children’s property that was perhaps more familiar to baby boomers than the target audience at the time. Machine-tooled for four-quadrant audiences, this is a family-friendly comedy/mystery that ladles out the schmaltz as liberally as the scares.
While credited writers Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver amp up the Animaniacs and Tiny Toons quotient of it all, the plot finds “loner teenager” Kat (Christina Ricci) being moved across the country to small-town Maine by her ghost therapist father Dr Harvey (Bill Pullman). Dad’s been employed by soulless heiress Carrigan Crittenden (Cathy Moriarty) and her dimwit lackey, Dibs (Eric Idle), to emotionally exorcise the haunted Whipstaff Manor of its inhabitants, including Casper (voiced by Malachi Pearson) and his poltergeist uncles Stinky, Stretch, and Fatso (Joe Nipote, Joe Alaskey, and Brad Garrett).
The character Casper represents a landmark all by himself, as the first fully computer-generated lead character of a movie. Even as a live-action film, this is more in the mode of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (which was also shot by Cundey) and Ricci and Pullman deserve kudos for acting so well against nothing, long before advances in effects made that a more routine skill for movie stars.
The visual effects haven’t dated nearly as badly as they might have, because director Brad Silberling and his visual effects team future-proofed it by embracing the cartoonish quality of the ghost characters. Coupled with the slapstick, you get some genuinely funny skits and set pieces out of spirits interacting with mortals.
But then there’s the plot. Knowing that the script was an early Abrams effort is the only way to make sense of the backstory that overpowers the second half of the movie. Around the halfway mark, the movie is suddenly obsessed with Casper’s backstory and who he was when he was alive. Then all of a sudden, there’s an ill-defined machine that brings dead people back to life, because reasons. It foreshadows his worst impulses as a serial reboot artist – it’s none of the stuff we like about his later films, but the rabbit’s foot, or Khan’s magic blood, or Supreme Leader Snoke.
But Abrams wasn’t even credited, so it’s highly possible that there were further rewrites, because this scans like a movie that was rewritten to death throughout its production. It’s entirely possible that Stoner and Oliver intended the supremely saccharine ending from the start, but at the culmination of a story that has been firing randomly for the last hour or so, it doesn’t feel earned.
Assembled from distinctly funny, soppy and scary fragments, 1995’s Casper is the ultimate mixed bag. Even the dialogue ranges from pitch-perfect puns, such as “Possession is nine-tenths of the law”, to the head-scratching “Bad news, we’re delaying the Halloween dance for two months”. It really throws everything at the screen to see what sticks, but happily, the design and the performances largely outlast the stodgier bits.
Casper is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.