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Film review: Casper

Published: Wednesday, May 31 1995 12:00 a.m. MDT

From "Batman" to "Tank Girl," the movies have long had a love affair with comic books . . . er, that is, "graphic novels." And some have been turned into better movies than others.

But now comes a more juvenile comic-book adaptation, "Casper" . . . as in "Casper, the Friendly Ghost."

This seems a curious choice, to say the least, and the result is a very juvenile film, aimed squarely at the preteen audience, which it will no doubt satisfy.

The plot, which is really old hat, has evil Cathy Moriarty, along with her dippy henchman (former Monty Pythoner Eric Idle), trying to find a hidden "treasure" at a haunted mansion she has just inherited, Whipstaff Manor in Friendship, Maine. (Moriarty is terrific, obviously enjoying her riff on Cruella De Ville, the cartoon villainess of "101 Dalmatians," and Idle's mugging prompts some chuckles).

But the nasty trio of Three Stooges-like spooks who haunt the place — Stretch, Fatso and Stinkie — chase them away, along with a series of ghost exterminators she hires (making for some amusing guest cameos).

As a last resort, she hires "ghost therapist" Bill Pullman, who, while trying to make contact with his late wife, theorizes that he can help ghostly spirits wrap up their earthly "unfinished business" so they can "cross over" to the next life. (Ghosts, he explains, are merely the "living-impaired.")

With Pullman is his 12-year-old daughter (Christina Ricci), and it is she who first meets the mansion's fourth ghost, Casper, who is woefully mistreated by Stretch, Fatso and Stinkie.

There are numerous minor subplots here — and at one point the film literally turns into a theme-park ride (looking forward to a new exhibit at Universal Studios, perhaps?). What's more, there is some serious — and heavily sentimental — discussion of questions about life and death.

But the emphasis is clearly on special-effects slapstick, and while those effects are certainly impressive, the gags are hit and miss, with a few too many misses and the proceedings rather bland — despite the frenzied antics of the "ghostly trio."

Ricci again proves she has enormous comic gifts but she is resigned to playing second-fiddle to special effects and elaborate gadgetry, as is Pullman, who doesn't get much of a chance to demonstrate the charm he exhibits in "While You Were Sleeping."

"Beetlejuice" it ain't — but kids will no doubt have a good time.

"Casper" is rated PG, for a fair amount of violence, most of it comic in nature, as well as some profanity and a few vulgar gags.

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