Vintage Hanna-Barbera holiday fun...sorta. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Casper's Halloween Special, the half-hour animated NBC special that premiered on October 30th, 1979. Known alternately as Casper Saves Halloween (from a previous DVD release) and as Casper the Friendly Ghost: He Ain't Scary, He's Our Brother (as the on-screen title card reads), Casper's Halloween Special unfortunately fails to scare up too many pleasures associated with the beloved Casper brand, with the smallest, the very smallest, of the small-fry--try neo-natal--probably the best bet for this weak outing. Much better, at least in terms of vintage H-B television fare, is this disc's so-called "added bonus:" the animated Thanksgiving special, The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't, which originally aired (in syndication) back on November 21st, 1972, and which now is a Thanksgiving perennial on cable's Boomerang. No extras for these okay-looking fullscreen transfers.
CASPER'S HALLOWEEN SPECIAL
It's Halloween night, and all little Casper, the Friendly Ghost (voice talent of Julie McWhirter) wants to do is to be treated like any other real little boy: he wants to put on a costume and go out trick-or-treating. However, fellow haunted mansion resident Hairy Scary (voice talent of John Stephenson), along with Witchy and her cat, have other ideas for Casper. Halloween is their one night to go and do what they're meant to do: scare people, and if Casper can't grasp that concept, then he's crazy. Binding Casper up in a window shade, the ghosts take off, but Casper frees himself and comes upon some poor orphans who are already out for tricks and treats. Befriending them, Casper is grateful the kids don't hold anything against him for being a real ghost; however, Hairy Scary has other ideas for the gently rebellious little ghost (other voice talents featured here are Greg Alter, Lucille Bliss, Diana McCannon, Marilyn Schreffler, Michael Sheehan, Hal Smith, and Ginny Tyler).
Although "Casper's Halloween Special" was indeed shown as a stand-alone primetime special on NBC in 1979, that Casper the Friendly Ghost: He Ain't Scary, He's Our Brother title card that first pops up here sure looks like a standard H-B episode card to me, indicating that this may have been just another entry--bumped up to prime time as a convenient holiday "special"--from NBC's Saturday morning Casper reboot, Casper and the Angels. Missing, though, in "Casper's Halloween Special," is any of the futuristic trappings of Casper and the Angels (which was set in the year 2179), as well as Space Patrol Officers Maxie and Minnie, so...who knows? I'm sure I didn't watch "Casper's Halloween Special" when it premiered back in '79; even though I've always been a fan of the Casper toons and comics, at 14 years old, I can imagine I found something else that night to watch on TV, particularly since by that age, I had given up on most H-B outings as not so much being too juvenile...but rather for being too humorless.
And that's the problem with "Casper's Halloween Special"--it just isn't funny. Okay, some of the mild slapstick might amuse a very small child, but even my first grader was a bit stony-faced for this one; she didn't hate "Casper's Halloween Special", but as it was unspooling, I could tell it was just...nothing to her. No reaction. The two songs were poorly constructed and immediately forgettable (who gets "malted shakes" when trick or treating?), the dialogue was substandard, to say the least (Casper, channeling my old granny, grumbles, "Bunch of rowdies!" when his ghost friends tape him up to a window shade), the characters uninteresting (Casper, instead of being sweet in this one, is a bit of whiner--and nobody likes a whiner, Casper--while the orphans are exceedingly annoying with their unattractive poverty), and the voice work, considering that first-rate cast, surprisingly spotty (Stephenson is doing a bad Ed Wynn here while McWhirter turns the young Casper into a vaguely indeterminate Southern-fried Edward G. Robinson, desperately in need of some PolyGrip on those choppers). Even Casper's character design is ugly, with Casper's head drawn in a misshapen fashion, and with buggy eyes that reminded me of hard-boiled eggs (the DVD cover art here is criminal bait-and-switch, considering it's the classic Casper look...which is nowhere to be seen in this toon). I suppose there are viewers out there who were little, little kids when this first premiered, and thus for them, "Casper's Halloween Special" holds a special place in their memories. However, the rest of the viewers out there--even vintage H-B fans like myself--can no doubt find something much better to watch this coming Thursday night.
THE THANKSGIVING THAT ALMOST WASN'T
America, Fall, 1972. Little Jimmy and Janie, playing outside on a swing, are called for Thanksgiving dinner. Ready to dig in, their father asks them if they forgot something, and the family bows their head to pray. Outside the comfortable home, up a tree, Father Squirrel (voice talent of Vic Perrin) watches the family pray as his son (voice talent of June Foray) asks about how Thanksgiving came about--to which Father Squirrel states that if it wasn't for his Great Great Great Grandfather Jeremy Squirrel (voice talent of Hal Smith), there wouldn't be a human Thanksgiving. Flashback: America, Fall, 1620. The Pilgrims, showing "hard work, perseverance, and courage," fight back from lack of food and disease, to survive their first hard winter. In the spring, help from the local Indians leads to a bountiful harvest, which the Pilgrims plan on celebrating with their Indian brothers. Mirroring this development, Johnny Cook, a young Pilgrim boy, befriends a young Indian brave, Little Bear, son of Chief Massasoit. When their adventures that first Thanksgiving day take them away from the settlement, it's up to Jeremy Squirrel, who got the two boys to stop fighting and be friends in the first place, to find them before vicious wolves rip them apart.
Produced and directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, based on a story by soon-to-be rivals-in-animation, Ken Spears and Joe Ruby, The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't is so well remembered by adults from my generation because, let's face it, it was one of the very few animated prime-time toons that was built around the Thanksgiving holiday. You can probably name twenty classic Christmas toons right off the top of your head, and even a handful for Halloween...but how many were specifically produced for Thanksgiving back during the 1970s? Watching it again here for about the 30th time (I know I caught it on TV most years up to the 1980s, and then I started DVRing from Boomerang), it's impossible not to like this silly, action-filled outing the minute you hear that catchy, moonshine jug, thud-puckin' theme song, complete with insane kazoos and Don Messick's big, booming bass drops. After just the first few bars, we're hooked on that classic, golden Hanna-Barbera nostalgia that sticks to adults from my generation like bad cholesterol to our narrowing arteries.
This being from 1972, before political correctness had seeped out of the universities to infect and destroy our national pop culture, you won't have to worry about sitting down your Little Johnny and Janie to watch The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't, only to have them see the Pilgrims being portrayed as either backward dolts who needed to be spoon-fed like babies by the Indians, or even better, genocidal racists looking to scam the New World away from those childlike, trusting, sartorially-challenged Indians (seriously...what goes with beaver pelt?). We're given just a quick timeline of the Pilgrims coming to America, with a rightly justified nod to their bravery and tenacity (good luck hearing that coming from your Little Johnny's school teacher today, folks) Here, when Johnny and Little Bear are lost in the woods, they buck themselves up by both stating they're proud of their heritages, with the rest of the episode going right into toned-down Jonny Quest mode. Little kids will enjoy Jeremy Squirrel scampering around trying to save the boys, while you'll crack up at unintentionally funny stuff like modern-day Jimmy's weirdly androgynous mixture of June Foray's Rocky Squirrel voice and hybrid Cindy Williams/Rosie O'Donnell head, or the morose, funereal reply, "Yes, Daaaaaad," as the kids are made to pray.
Both "Casper's Halloween Special" and The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't are both fullframe, 1.37:1 transfers from what looks to be unrestored original elements. Colors are generally good (if perhaps a tad faded in spots), with expected levels of grain, and minor screen anomalies, like dirt and scratches (looks better than when they were coming in off the aerial).
The Dolby Digital English mono audio tracks for both toons are fine, with decent-enough re-recording levels, and slight hiss to both. No subtitles or closed-captions available, though.
No extras (I don't consider The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't an "extra;" this is a double-feature disc.
The wrong kind of "boos" for Casper...but I like the little Indian kid and the Pilgrim. Warner's Archive Collection put the classic Casper image on the DVD cover (but not their own name, strangely...), but unfortunately, the Casper that actually shows up on screen in "Casper's Halloween Special" is a shadow of his former ghostly self. Much better is the lively The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't, which should please classic Hanna-Barbera fans this holiday season. A hit and a miss. For The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't alone, I'm recommending Casper's Halloween Special.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.