Another demonstration of the hazards involved in turning a six-minute animated short into a big-budget movie, “Casper” will doubtless spur nostalgic recognition among grown-ups but skews so heavily toward children that it offers little to divert anyone over the age of 8. While pic should scare up big box office returns, its tone may ultimately limit crossover to the world of young adults and teens once the hordes with powerful want-to-see urges have g-g-gone.
Billed as “a live-action fun-house ride” in press notes, “Casper” actually seems to be thinking more along the lines of the next Universal Studios attraction, down to a roller-coaster set in the movie that’s probably being drawn up for the tour right now.
Yet while “Casper” does present its share of visual splendor, it never really gets beyond the “cute” stage, and once the audience has become inured to the wide-eyed protagonist and impressive digitized effects, there’s little sense of wonder or awe to be found.
The complicated nature of the project seems to have overwhelmed 30-year-old director Brad Silberling, making his feature debut after cutting his teeth in episodic TV. Similarly, rookie screenwriters Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver begin down more paths than they can follow, and the result is a collection of cartoonish characters leaving”Casper” hollow at its core, and the ghosts far from alone in their transparency.
Pic starts with a snarling heiress, Carrigan (Cathy Moriarty), left a haunted mansion by her late father. Determined to gain the treasure rumored to be within , but chased off by the ghostly denizens, she enlists a “ghost therapist,” Dr. Harvey (Bill Pullman), to eradicate the problem.
Still grieving over his wife’s death, Harvey arrives with his teenage daughter, Kat (Christina Ricci, best known for her work in “The Addams Family” movies), who, like Casper, is lonely and looking for a friend.
After the expected shock wears off, Kat and Casper do form a bond and even Kat’s dad warms up to the antisocial ghost trio — Stinkie, Stretch and Fatso — who share the place with Casper.
Unfortunately, “Casper” opens more doors than it can possibly walk through, leaving each under-explored. The villains disappear for a lengthy stretch, Kat’s crush on a young classmate is barely pursued, and Dr. Harvey is suddenly seen yucking it up with the once-unfriendly apparitions.
Because the humor seldom gets past the point of puns and celebrity cameos, pic relies almost entirely on high-tech visual gags that will tickle kids more than adults. By contrast, something like “The Mask” derived laughs from its situations as well as its special effects, whereas here the sheer novelty of seeing a cartoon come to life — which, admittedly, has proven bankable in the past — is asked to sustain a full-length feature.
“Casper” also indulges in unabashed hokiness, but even its “Ghost”-like finale is only marginally effective.
The movie’s biggest asset, in fact, is of the earthly variety. Ricci is an enchanting young actress who brings to mind a teenage Natalie Wood, and whatever emotional resonance “Casper” can muster is largely to her credit.
Other performers fare less well, with Moriarty doing a poor woman’s Cruella de Vil and Eric Idle reduced to window dressing as her bumbling henchman.
Tech credits are characteristic of an Amblin/Industrial Light & Magic collaboration. The list of kudos inevitably begins with the seemingly effortless special effects from “Jurassic Park” alumni Dennis Muren and Michael Lantieri, as well as to cinematographer Dean Cundey (who worked on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which presented similar challenges) and production designer Leslie Dilley’s macabre castle and generally opulent look.
And yes, the trademark song does show up, but not in its entirety until the closing credits, and then with an almost unrecognizable beat — an illustration of how “Casper,” however benignly, goes wrong.