'Casper' is viewer-friendly, even if it is light as air

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even after 40-plus years, Casper is still the friendliest ghost we know. And with treatment like this, it's not hard to see why.

There's a lot of good news about "Casper," the latest high-tech effort from Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment colossus. Kids should love it, parents may even enjoy it, and film buffs will be both impressed by its technical expertise and amused by the references to old movies sprinkled throughout.

For one thing, Casper, unlike most of us, hasn't grown more cynical over the years. In fact, the only real difference between the Friendly Ghost of 1995 and the one many of us grew up with is that he's no longer looking for simply any friend, but rather a girlfriend.

For another, there's the girl he settles on: Kat Harvey (Christina Ricci, "The Addams Family"), a teen-age charmer who meets Casper when her father is hired to rid a Maine mansion of its resident ghosts. Kat's a bit of a loner too -- she's been to nine schools in two years, as her father chases ghosts all over the country -- and after a predictably horrific first meeting, Casper wins over his would-be girlfriend by fixing her breakfast (in a scene the animators must have had a blast with).

Bill Pullman ("While You Were Sleeping") starts off slowly, but ends up doing a serviceable job as Dr. James Harvey (not surprising; Pullman has a yeoman-like quality that enables him to do OK, if not shine, in pretty much whatever role he's given). And the voices of Casper and his uncles are gems, particularly newcomer Malachi Pearson as Casper, who actually sounds like a kid, and not some actor struggling to portray a kid.

But Ricci gets the most screen time, and it's to her credit that she is every bit as much of a presence as her ghostly co-star. It's hard to predict how well child stars will age on screen (for every Jodie Foster, there's an Anthony Michael Hall, who was so winning in "The Breakfast Club" and "Sixteen Candles," yet has pretty much disappeared since). But anyone who can do as well as she does reacting to empty space -- the ghosts were added later -- bears watching.

And then there are the ghosts themselves, wondrously two-dimensional apparitions worth every penny of the film's umpteen-million-dollar budget. Drawing on both the animation-live actor interaction of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and computer-generated wizardry of "Jurassic Park," the folks at Industrial Light and Magic have come up with a ghostly foursome -- the star and his mischief-loving uncles Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso (sort of the evil stepsisters to Casper's Cinderella). They seem every bit as real as the actors they play alongside.

As for the bad news . . . well, there really isn't any, at least none that should make that much difference. The plot doesn't develop so much as simply pop up occasionally. And the villains, portrayed by Cathy Moriarty ("Raging Bull") and Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle, don't do much more than take up screen time. One plot line, involving a mad scramble for a potion that can revive the dead, seems particularly forced.

One could rail against the lack of imagination that forces Hollywood to base its blockbusters on characters that date back to the 1940s. But why bother? "Casper" is a lot of fun and except for three or four slightly off-color expressions (although saying a vacuum cleaner sucks may get past the word police), parents can let their kids watch it with a clear conscience.

A handful of big-time movie-star cameos are guaranteed to generate laughs. And there are enough in-jokes to keep the culturally hip alert (remember, for example, that Casper is a Harvey Comics character). Screenwriters Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver have a nice ear for teen-age dialogue and a pretty good sense of humor (you'll love it when Casper finally lives up to his ghostly stereotype and actually says "Boo!").

"Casper" is never going to clean up at Academy Awards time, is not going to become a cherished childhood memory like "The Wizard of Oz," and probably won't be a "Jurassic Park"-style marketing colossus. But it's 80 minutes worth of family entertainment with a good heart, and that's not bad at all.

"Casper"

Directed by Brad Silberling

Starring Christina Ricci, Bill Pullman, Cathy Moriarty and Eric Idle

Released by Universal

Rated PG (a few naughty words, cartoonish horror)

** 1/2

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