Well, it's not my Casper the Friendly Ghost. Classic Media has released 2006's Casper's Ghost School, a failed 3D computer-generated look at the sweetest ghost who ever lived. Or...died. Looking very much at times like a Tim Burton cast-off, Casper's Ghost School does have a terrific design to it (particularly the world of the Scare School), with some amusing bits concerning the ghoulies that attend. However, a subplot involving Casper helping a lonely young boy - a central storyline of many, many earlier classic Casper cartoons - is twisted here to subvert the Casper mythology, and not in a nice way. And to top it off, they ultimately abandon that poorly developed subplot, creating a hole in the film's motivation.
Casper (voice of Devon Werkheiser) befriends a lonely boy named Jimmy (voice of Brett DelBuono), who has a big soccer game coming up. Unfortunately, Casper is caught getting scared by Jimmy (not the other way around), and his embarrassment is broadcast all over the ghostly realm (there's not explanation in the film how this event was recorded). Told by Kibosh (Kevin Michael Richardson), the King of the Ghosts, that he must go to Scare School to learn how to frighten "fleshies," Casper bids goodbye to his uncles, The Ghostly Trio, and sets off via pirate ship, to Scare School.
Once there, he meets a whole new group of misfits, including Ra (Kendre Berry), a scared little mummy, Mantha (Christy Carlson Romano), a ghoul whose head keeps coming off, and Thatch (Matthew Underwood), a mean bully of a vampire who's incredulous at Casper's kind spirit. Once there, Casper has difficulties reconciling his training with his natural inclination to be kind to humans. He's also having trouble seeing Jimmy play his games, particularly when he's not allowed to leave campus. Trouble is brewing behind the scenes when Alder and Dash (James Belushi and Bob Saget), a two-headed creature in charge of the school, decide to take on Kibosh for control of the ghostly realm - with Casper drawn in for fear of being sent to The Valley of the Shadows, an unspeakable place of suffering.
I've written before about classic Casper cartoons (please click here to read that review), and I don't mince words about the character: Casper is one of my favorite cartoon figures precisely because his extreme kindness makes him so unique. Many other critics hate this about Casper (they call him saccharine or babyish), but I think his cartoons show genuine warmth and humor, and should be valued precisely because they go against the norms of so many other cartoons. So when Casper's Ghost School has Casper not only lying to get of trouble (when he sneaks out to see Jimmy), but also have Casper scare Jimmy (something the sweet, loving Casper would never do to a friend), it's a reversal of the character that turned me right off.
And that's too bad, because there are some fun things in Casper's Ghost School. The look of Casper's Ghost School is often excellent, with smooth, velvety blacks and purples and grays creating an evocative, spooky backdrop. Several action scenes standout, particularly the arrival of the pirate ship to the Scare School, with a giant sea monster rising out of the ocean to attack it. All of the figures are attractively modeled, although Casper and The Ghostly Trio often look unnecessarily dark - almost sooty - for no apparent reason other than overenthusiastic shading. And quite a few of the jokes at the Scare School are funny, with some of the faculty members (Dr. Thurdegree Burns and Frankengymteacher) good for solid laughs.
But too much of Casper's Ghost School is compromised by fuzzy story construction, and the devaluation of the Casper character. The entire Jimmy subplot is handled in a slapdash manner, with the Jimmy character coming off more as a whining, annoying pest, rather than as an object of worthwhile pity for Casper to help. The Kibosh/Alder and Dash subplot is split up into tiny pieces and inserted anytime the plot drags, and Casper's friendship with Ra and Mantha add up to little in end. And the twist ending with The Valley of the Shadows doesn't have any impact when it's dragged in at the last minute. The Casper character, forced to scare a friend and lie about breaking the rules, might as well be any ghost character here; nothing about him in Casper's Ghost School distinctly says, "Casper." And when the filmmakers present some kind of weird, pseudo-Freudian nonsense with Casper meeting his evil Id, the utter contempt for the character is apparent - and complete. Casper is given a line in the film, "Just because we're friendly, doesn't mean you can push us around," which pretty much sums up the producers' schizophrenic - and wrongheaded - approach to this kind, gentle icon.
The anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen video image for Casper's Ghost School is pretty close to digital perfection. The image is razor sharp, colors are subtle, and no compression issues were spotted.
The Dolby Digital English stereo mix is balanced and quite strong. There were no subtitles or close-captions.
There's a quick behind-the-scenes look at how one of the scenes for Casper's Ghost School was conceived and executed. As well, there are two music videos for songs used in the film, and as a special bonus (and an ill-conceived one at that, when one considers how superior it is to the new product), a 1953 classic Casper cartoon is included: By the Old Mill Scream.
Great computer animation and a couple of funny characters at the Scare School doesn't change the fact that the producers of Casper's Ghost School significantly altered the Casper character, and devalued his myth. I don't want to see Casper, in the name of being more modern or hip, scaring his friends or undergoing Freudian analysis. It's an unfortunate intrusion on one of the sweetest, most loving characters in animation. If you're a die-hard Casper friend, you can rent Casper's Ghost School to complete your Casper experience, but everyone else would do well to skip it, and rent some of the great old Casper cartoons, also put out by Classic Media.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.