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.
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.