Bedtime for Boo Boy

The new Casper -- the 28 trillion bytes of Industrial Light and Magic created Casper -- does not inhabit the gently hokey realm of the original Harvey Comics Casper. The comic-book Casper had friends such as Hotstuff, the little red devil, and Wendy, the good little witch, and would never, ever be caught in the neighborhood of a risque thought. Cinema Casper says, "There's a girl in my bed -- yes!" She's not really in his bed, of course, not like that. But, still, this is Casper, lusting. Casper is still a little-boy-lost ghost who just wants to make friends, and his lust is obviously of the pre-teen variety. But. Still. A Casper who lusts is a whole new spook.

The girl in Casper's bed is Kat Harvey (Christina Ricci), and she's unaware that she's crashed on a ghost's mattress. She's been dragged to the house Casper haunts -- Whipstaff Manor -- by her father, Dr. James Harvey (Bill Pullman), a therapist for ghosts who prefers to call the deceased hangers on "living impaired." Harvey and his young daughter have moved into Whipstaff at the behest of Carrigan Crittenden (Cathy Moriarty), who has inherited the mansion. Though Crittenden is a flesh-and-blood character, Cruella DeVil is clearly her role model.

Her wicked nature is revealed early on; during the reading of the will that leaves her Whipstaff Manor, a lawyer details the generous sums Crittenden's father has left to various animal funds -- save the snakes and what have you. "Skip the livestock," she snaps. Her minion/henchperson Dibs (Eric Idle) attempts to smooth things over with the lawyer; Dibs does a lot of smoothing over. The lawyer, though, is unimpressed. He smugly informs Crittenden that Whipstaff Manor is not just decrepit; this property is condemned.

Or filled with ghosts, anyway, as she discovers when checking out her hoped-for treasure. To make her mansion more marketable, she enlists the aid of Dr. Harvey, who's introduced in a dead-solid-perfect send-up of Hard Copy. This isn't the first, or last, of Casper's many self-indulgent TV-generation jokes. Crittenden puts in a call to the "shrink to spooks" only after Father Guido Sarducci is unable to exorcise Casper and his obnoxious uncles, and after we see Dan Aykroyd in full ghostbuster regalia say, "Who you gonna call? Somebody else," and then flee. This is all great fun, but it's also all setup; the real pleasure doesn't begin until Dr. Harvey and Kat settle into the mansion.

For Kat, the horrors of a haunted mansion are nothing compared to the horrors of yet another new school, where she fits in only until her new peer group finds out that her father's a freak. But the school provides the first of a series of plots that keep the movie floating along. A delay in the removal of asbestos from the gym means Kat's new class has no place to hold their Halloween dance. Of course, they quickly plot to have it in Whipstaff Manor. Will Dr. Harvey help Casper's odious uncles cross over to the great beyond before the big dance? Or will they still be around to cause trouble? For that matter, why are they stuck on earth with unfinished business? And just what is Casper's unfinished business? Will Casper and Kat become friends? And, of course, there's the long-standing question: how did Casper die?

All these issues are addressed as the comedy dances toward its happy ending, though the "how did Casper die" query is not answered to my satisfaction. Plus, we get fantastic machines -- Casper's father was an inventor -- including several trips on the "up-an'-at-'em," a roller-coaster ride in a red-velvet armchair that, in the same manner a drive-through car wash washes cars, shaves and grooms whoever is in the chair. Kat is able to duck the automated straight razors; sycophant Dibs is not so nimble.

Idle as flunky, and Moriarty as the meta-bitch he toadies to, are a team on par with Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. Unrepentantly mean characters are always refreshing, especially when paired with weasel sidekicks. Ricci does equally well as sullen child (pre-Casper) and when blossoming (post-Casper). Pullman not only plays a heart-broken widower, but also gets drunk and does Elvis karaoke. He does this with three digital characters, Casper's ghostly uncles Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso. The therapy is going well, it seems, and the ghosts are so taken with the "air-sucking intruder" that they take him to their favorite dive for a boozy bonding session.

Stretch, Stinkie and Fatso have their charms, though Fatso is quite lewd. These digital characters, along with the titular Casper, have a good 40 minutes of screen time. Because the special effects work so well, this astonishing accomplishment doesn't even stand out. But it's a reason to catch Casper an extra time just to ogle the tricks.

Though only a set of computer commands, Casper comes across as a real character in the movie. However, he is not a real human character; he's definitely a ghost, even if he seems to want a little more than to simply make a new pal. He shows his not-just-friendly feelings for Kat several ways. He whispers, "Let me keep you. Please, let me keep you"; touching, but creepy and weird. He sleeps on her bed like a pet; touching, but weird. He offers her a dress to wear as a Halloween-dance costume, and then says it was his mother's; not just weird, not healthy. He asks her if she would be his date for the dance, if he was alive; healthy anger. Finally, he and Kat slow-dance and kiss; perfectly normal.

Appearances aside, the big-screen Casper has little in common with the friendly ghost who for decades populated comic books and cartoons. Cinema Casper is a rowdier creature, who lives in a world shot-through with satire and good gags, a creature whom adults might be more comfortable with than kids. And just when it seems things might be normal at Whipstaff Manor, we're blasted by the music of Little Richard -- a truly strange creature.

Directed by Brad Silberling. With Bill Pullman and Christina Ricci.
Rated PG.
96 minutes.


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