Casper was a box office success in 1995. Hitting theaters on Memorial Day weekend, the adaptation of the Harvey Comics cartoon character managed to hang on to the #1 spot for two weeks. It even beat Braveheart on its opening weekend!
But, Casper didn’t exactly fare well with a lot of critics at the time, and even contemporary reviews aren’t quite favorable. In honor of the movie’s 25th anniversary, let’s look back at the feature film debut of the friendly ghost.
Why Critics Weren’t Friendly Towards This Ghost
Upon release, Casper received mixed reviews from many prominent film reviewers. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were favorable towards the film, citing the impressive special effects used to bring the animated ghosts to life. However, other critics were not so kind. Leonard Maltin gave the movie his lowest rating of “BOMB”, Variety’s Brian Lowry said there was, “little sense of wonder or awe to be found” in the movie, and Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman called it, “a fairy tale with the soul of a rerun.”
A common criticism seemed to be the film’s attempt to add some darker backstory than anything found in previous iterations of the character. Critics felt that digging into Casper’s actual death was too morbid for what was supposed to be a lighthearted kids flick. We’ll talk more about that material in the other section of this article, but suffice to say that many critics did not vibe with Casper‘s big seesaw shifts in tone.
In a similar vein, critics felt that Casper was too sappy. Barbara Shulgasser of the San Francisco Examiner called it “offensively maudlin.” Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today said, “Casper moves like a dirge, especially when it sinks into a meditation on death…” It seems like a majority of critics, even those that ended up with a positive take on the movie, were not on-board with the movie’s emotional beats.
Another complaint was the movie’s pacing and narrative familiarity. Described as “fast-forward prankishness” and “junk-collage quality”, quite a number of critics felt the movie lacked originality in its story and dealt things out at a less-than-measured clip. This can be a common issue with a lot of movies that are intended for younger audiences.
However, even with a 46% score on Rotten Tomatoes (and even a 49% audience score!), the critical dislike of Casper couldn’t stop it from cemented itself into the hearts of a particular generation. And twenty-five years later, it’s time to call Casper a childhood classic.
How Casper Became Beloved
Thanks to a strong performance at the box office, Casper was bound to be well-remembered by the kids that grew up with it. Add to that a profitable run on home video (no thanks to a few weaker direct-to-video sequels), and we do have to acknowledge that part of Casper‘s longevity is due to its sheer accessibility.
That being said, Casper has benefited from the lens of time. Looking at other kids movies from the era, Casper is a surprisingly polished production. Beyond the digital animation that brings the ghosts to life, this is a movie with gorgeous interior sets that director Brad Silberling shows off at every turn.
But, we do need to talk about the digital effects and why they’ve actually managed to hold up over time. Unlike digital effects striving for some sense of realism, Casper commits to an extremely cartoony design with its ghosts. In doing so, they don’t have to look perfect in order to work. In a sense, it’s a similar philosophy to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. By having live-action actors interact with clear-cut toons instead of something striving for reality, the movie’s effects don’t endanger themselves to feeling dated.
What also bolsters the movie is its performances. Bill Pullman is all-in on his goofball ghost therapist, Dr. James Harvey. His earnestness and charm do a lot for a character that could come off as thin on the page. Cathy Moriarty is expertly cast as the vicious Carrigan, oozing contempt in every line reading. Eric Idle is expectedly dopey as her sidekick Dibs, and he’s certainly the movie’s biggest outright clown. The three ghost uncles – Stretch, Stinkie, and Fatso – are played with gleeful anarchy by Joe Nipote, Joe Alaskey, and Brad Garrett. There’s also a litany of cameos that are better left unspoiled for those unfamiliar with the film.
Though, it would be remiss to not mention the central performances by Christina Ricci as Kat Harvey and Malachi Pearson as the voice of Casper. These two anchor the film with the right balance of heart and humor. Most of the film’s thematic weight rests on their shoulders, and for two young actors, they do an exceptional job with material that could be difficult for any thespian.
That material is the often maligned darker subject matter that critics didn’t seem to enjoy. The script, credited to Sherri Stoner & Deanna Oliver, decides to tackle ideas about death, the afterlife, and mourning a loved one. It’s weighty stuff to frame a kids movie around, and it’s understandable why critics wouldn’t jive with a movie that went from such heavy topics to goofball comedy.
And yet, it’s that willingness to explore such difficult themes that has helped Casper stand out from the crowd over the years. Though the movie does have to temper deviations into darker ideas with cartoon hijinks, it’s a bold move to present kids with a storyline that will likely have them asking questions about mortality after the movie is over. A lot of kids movies do their best to sugarcoat or totally avoid truly sticky topics. It’s refreshing to see Casper want to delve into these ideas. Whether it’s successful or not is a matter of opinion, but the intention is worth commending all on its own.
One aspect of Casper we have to highlight before we’re done is the score by legendary film composer James Horner. A good score can elevate any movie, and Horner treats the material with the right harmony (heh heh) between the two big tonal markers. His lighter fare is appropriately fluffy and carries a jauntiness to it that helps some of the weaker bits of comedy. By the same token, his melancholy motif is a perfect blend of whimsical and forlorn. Go listen to the score on Spotify because it’s easily one of the best parts of the movie.
All these years later, Casper has managed to stick around thanks to it offering a pleasant blend of what audiences expect from a kids movie and some weightier thematic fare. The ensemble is all on point and it’s a handsome production across the board. After twenty-five years, we can say that Casper is a movie that has achieved its ultimate goal: it’s found a lot of friends for this friendly ghost.