Aimed squarely at the grade-schoolers who helped make 1995’s “Casper” a B.O. hit and homevideo bestseller, “Casper, A Spirited Beginning” is a lightweight made-for-video “prequel” that should post impressively strong sales. Rental prospects are slightly less lustrous, if only because of new pic’s more limited appeal. Unlike its predecessor, which made at least token efforts to amuse and involve older viewers, this by-the-numbers follow-up is strictly kid stuff.
True to its title, “A Spirited Beginning” begins with Casper (voiced by Jeremy Foley) introduced as a neophyte ectoplasm on his way to a spooky boot camp for the newly departed. Bounced from the “ghost train” by a cranky fellow passenger, Casper winds up in Deedstown, a quaint little hamlet with its very own haunted house.
Stinky, Stretch and Fatso — aka the Ghostly Trio — claim Applegate Manor as their haunting ground, and offer to teach Casper the supernatural tricks of their trade.
Steve Guttenberg heads the human cast as a developer who wants to raze Applegate Manor to make way for a shopping center. Things get complicated when Chris (Brendon Ryan Barrett), the developer’s 10-year-old son, befriends Casper and joins his preservation-minded schoolteacher (Lori Loughlin) in a campaign to save the haunted mansion.
Much like the 1995 “Casper,” new effort relies heavily on dazzling computer-generated trickery to fill key roles. Casper and the other ghosts — including the overbearing Kibosh (voiced by James Earl Jones) and the craven Snivel (Pauly Shore) — seem more real, and much more charismatic, than their flesh-and-blood co-stars. Guttenberg and Barrett make agreeable impressions, but Loughlin and several others give overemphatic performances that can only be described as cartoonish.
Director Sean McNamara sustains a pace that is perfectly suited to viewers with limited attention spans. Some parents may wonder why a children’s film contains so many in-jokey references to “The X-Files” (which, like “A Spirited Beginning,” is a Fox product). But that won’t keep them from repeatedly using the pic as a made-for-video baby sitter.