25 Years After It Hit Theaters, 'Casper' Remains A Melancholy Technical Marvel

The image of a ghost conjures menacing motives and lingering negativity that can harm the otherwise safe, living person. However, a morbid fascination with the afterlife hovers over our culture and has remained present throughout time. This spiderweb of spooky intrigue is intricately woven into our traditions through a facade of cute Halloween decor and scary movies audiences can enjoy from a comfortable distance to make sense of what we wish to understand and accept the most: death. A refreshing and innovative perspective on phantoms arrived in 1939 with Casper the Friendly Ghost, a young and relentlessly kind protagonist desperate for a friend and longing to be accepted by people who are otherwise scared of his spectral presence. Adapted from a storybook into a Noveltoon in 1945 released by Paramount and comic book appearances first in 1949 by St. John Publications, and later in 1952 by Harvey Comics, the friendly ghost has grown into a robust franchise. It wasn't until 1995 with Universal Pictures' release of Casper that the backstory of the lovable character was fleshed out (pun intended). Directed by Brad Silberling, the film features revolutionary CGI animation, contains mature themes of friendship and grief, and serves as a perfect primer for children's introduction to the horror genre. The film follows Casper and his Ghostly Trio of wicked uncles (Stinkie, Fatso, and Stretch) as they haunt a seaside mansion called Whipstaff Manor, a beautifully decrepit structure inspired by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi thanks to production designer Leslie Dilley. The evil and money hungry Carrigan Crittenden (Cathy Moriarty) inherits Whipstaff and enlists paranormal therapist Dr. James Harvey (Bill Pullman) to eradicate the ghosts haunting her dilapidated property. Upon arrival with his daughter Kat (Christina Ricci), Casper quickly develops an adoration for her as she helps him remember his past. As their friendship blossoms, Dr. Harvey (whose name is a nod to the comics) spends his time psychoanalyzing Casper's rambunctious uncles in hopes these "living-impaired" individuals will cross over.In order to depict the ghosts as effervescent and ethereal, the special effects team embraced new computer graphic imaging technology as opposed to resorting to practical effects as seen in such prior ghost-centric films like Poltergeist and Ghostbusters. Casper is also the first feature film to have a fully CGI character in the lead role. In an effort to make the ghosts appear more human-like as though they truly were alive at one point, there needed to be an element of realism as opposed to simply mimicking the cartoon version of the characters. A team of 25 animators from Industrial Light & Magic used a cutting-edge software program that morphed pre-set facial expressions for Casper, which they would later embellish to add nuance. To enhance characterization and emotion, light sensitive markers were attached to a performer's face to provide lip sync. The production team used green tennis balls on a stick as a reference point for the actors to interact with their deceased co-stars. It took 18 months for the animation team to complete 330 ghost shots. Interacting with their environment through CGI was the primary challenge (and achievement) of the film, while James Horner's hauntingly beautiful score adds a fairytale-like quality to Casper's story. The themes of the Casper franchise, which the film embellished, are friendship and loss, particularly grief. For one, the story takes place in Friendship, Maine (a painfully obvious metaphor). In the beginning of the film, Kat wishes her father would stay in one place long enough for her to make a friend, while Casper sullenly watches television alone wishing for a friend when he spots the father-daughter duo on an episode of Hard Copy. Once introduced, Kat and Casper begin to share their experiences of loneliness. Kat mourns the loss of her mother, Amelia (Amy Brenneman) and laments the constant abuse Casper experiences from his uncles, as well as the inability for him to remember anything about his life when he was alive. "It's not bad, it's just kind of sad," Kat says as they sit on top of a lighthouse overlooking the ocean, Casper's only spot he has to himself. They bond over their losses and emotional isolation since it is fairly rare for anyone who has experienced death at a young age to find someone who can relate to that kind of pain. Additionally, there is a more commonly relatable adolescent yearning for belonging, being accepted, and valued that is still relevant to young audiences today. Assorted manifestations of grief are explored throughout the film and can all be easily understood for younger viewers, which makes Casper uniquely successful in its various depictions of loss, particularly the stages of denial and bargaining. Dr. Harvey travels across the country to chase ghosts in hope of reuniting with the spirit of his wife while making deals with Kat, who denies the existence of ghosts, as a means to accept his eccentric endeavors. Fully aware of her father's denial for their loss, Kat cynically goes along for the ride. When she later reveals her concern about forgetting details about her mother – how she would delicately apply lipstick or the smell of her cooking breakfast in the morning – Casper empathizes since he can't remember anything about his childhood until relics in the attic later exhume buried memories of his life. It is one thing to fear the loss of a loved one, but this progressive conversation in a kids movie exposes an added layer of loss that is not typically discussed through the lens of an adolescent on screen.It is divulged that Casper passed away from pneumonia after playing too long in the snow on a sled he had begged his father to buy him, a request he would later regret due to his immense guilt. When his father became crippled with depression, Casper tells Kat, "I didn't know where to go, so I just stayed behind so my dad wouldn't be lonely." This kind of empathetic responsibility is familiar territory for any child who has lost a parent. There is a mature sense of parentification in which the child has to grow up and look out for their parent. Kat experiences this with her father as well when she reminds him he won't be able to date unless things change; he won't find her mother; and reminds him once he becomes a ghost himself that he needs to stay with her so she doesn't grow up alone.This heavier, humanistic subject matter is supported by the decision to have Casper's character given a last name for the first time in the franchise's history, as well as portray him in flesh form at the end of the movie. To this day, many fans recall '90s heartthrob, Devon Sawa's romantic descent down that elaborate staircase during the school dance. Casper's father is also given a more detailed history when Kat sees aged newspapers scattered across the attic floor claiming he lost his mind after the death of his son. He invented "The Lazarus", a machine meant to bring someone back from the dead. These reactions to grief play into the extensive connections of friendship and empathy throughout the film, and elevate the idea of a kid-friendly version of a ghost story by incorporating both realistic and far-fetched reactions to experiencing the loss of a loved one. However, the film's underbelly of dark subject matter is sweetened with genre allusions that segue as a primer for a child's introduction to horror. The elaborately creepy set design and spectral cast aside, there are numerous genre references and '90s nostalgia buried within the film. Several allusions come from the comical Ghostly Trio when they take on the shape of Dracula or cause doors to growl, growing convex like in Robert Wise's The Haunting. In a scene where Dr. Harvey becomes possessed, his reflection in the mirror alternates between the Crypt Keeper from Tales From the Crypt, Rodney Dangerfield, Clint Eastwood, and Mel Gibson. The whole concept of resurrecting the dead pervades throughout, and the button to start up The Lazarus is hidden within a false Frankenstein book embedded on Casper's father's desk. A priest leaves Whipstaff with his head turned around backwards and covered in green vomit reminiscent of The Exorcist, and there's even a cameo by Dan Aykroyd suited up as Dr. Raymond Stantz from Ghostbusters.  Premiering on this day 25 years ago, critics had mostly negative responses to the film's debut. While the special effects were praised, Leonard Maltin gave the film a poor review because it focused on Casper as a dead child more than a ghost. However, Roger Ebert praised the film's philosophical notions, particularly when Casper tells Kat "I guess when you're a ghost, life just doesn't matter that much anymore." Revisiting Silberling's spooky directorial debut is a trip down memory lane filled with special effects that still hold up over two decades later. The silly jokes and fantastical storyline meanders, but also delivers worthwhile lessons for both the young and old. Casper is a lively tale about a friendly ghost who can teach us all about friendship and kindness as well as the importance of not leaving unfinished business behind.