Casper the Friendly Case

Since they have been around, humans have been utterly fascinated by the idea of life after death. Some believe in heaven and hell, while others believe in reincarnation. And some believe that spirits can roam the earth after leaving their bodies. 

According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 45% of Americans believe in ghosts. It’s a fear that has plagued the nightmares of many, the idea that there are unseen spirits among us. But what if you found out that the ghost in your house isn’t mean? Would it change your mind if the spirit just wanted to be your friend? 

In the mid 1940’s, Paramount’s Famous Studios produced a short called, “The Friendly Ghost,” starring a cute little spirit named Casper. Casper went on to star in many other cartoons and comics, and in 1995 he starred in a major motion picture alongside Bill Pullman and Christina Ricci! 

So, if you’re the kind of person that believes in ghosts, this is the story of Casper. And if you’re the kind that doesn’t believe in ghosts, well, this is the story of Casper anyway! 

So before we start talking about the movie, let’s talk about Casper’s history! 

The Friendly Ghost, the first Noveltoon to feature Casper, was released by Paramount in 1945.

HISTORY

Casper, the friendly ghost (the friendliest ghost you know.) 

  • If you look at the original animation and subsequent comics, it’s tough to figure out exactly where Casper came from. But, in the real world, he was created in the late 1930’s by Joe Oriolo and Seymour Reit.
    • The story behind Casper’s origins was disputed between the co-creators. Joe Oriolo’s family says that he created the character to help his daughter  overcome her fear of the dark. Reit claimed that he wrote the story, but Oriolo drew up the images of the character. Let’s just say they were both correct and call it a day! 
    • Casper was originally designed to be a spirit in a bedsheet. The idea of a ghost in a white sheet dates back as early as the 15th Century, when people in England would report seeing apparitions wrapped in shrouds.
      • The idea stems from the fact that many people of lower economic status couldn’t afford coffins, and were then only buried in their burial shrouds.
      • By the time of Shakespeare, reports of people impersonating ghosts by wearing sheets were becoming somewhat common–it seemed a popular disguise for criminals.
      • Over time, this became the most iconic image of a ghost, and would become a popular Halloween costume.
  • Casper’s creators were animators, working for Max Fleischer! Originally the concept was for a children’s book, but that didn’t pan out. The project was put on hold as Reit served in the military during WWII.
  • During the war, the Fleischer Studios was purchased by Paramount, and was now called, “Famous Studios.”
    • Because of this, all rights to Casper were sold to Famous Studios for $200. 
      • Some sources say that Oriolo sold the rights to the book while Reit was fighting in the war.
  • In 1945, Casper made his debut in a Famous Studios short called, “The Friendly Ghost.”
    • The short introduced audiences to a sweet little ghost named Casper, who didn’t fit in with his ghostly counterparts because he didn’t like to scare people. In fact, he wanted to be their friend. You can even see him reading the famous book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” 
  • Between 1945 and 1959, 55 theatrical Casper shorts were released.
  • According to Dark Horse Comics, publisher St. John’s created Casper comics starting in 1949. In 1952, Harvey Comics took over and gave the ghost much of his iconic qualities, and animators that had developed him on screen, also worked on the comics as well.
  • There has been much debate about where Casper himself comes from. In one of the Famous Studios shorts, Casper can be seen sitting by a gravestone, which would imply that he is the ghost of a deceased child. 
    • In the comics, however, Casper was born a ghost. Ghosts in the comic universe are treated like any other supernatural beings, being born as what they are and not something another creature can become.
      • Casper’s parents were ghosts when they were married, so ghosts can procreate in the Harvey comic universe.
    • One theory for Casper came from a Simpsons episode in 1991, where Lisa theorizes that Casper is the ghost of Richie Rich, another Harvey comics property.
    • Casper wasn’t intended to be the ghost of Richie Rich, as he was created years before the Richie Rich comics were published. But, comics don’t usually follow strict timeline rules, so if you want to believe this theory, more power to you.
  • In 1963, The New Casper Cartoon Show premiered as an ABC Saturday morning cartoon. It featured many of the characters from the comic books, like Wendy the Good Witch, The Ghostly Trio (which have had a few different names over the years), and Spooky the Tuff Little Ghost.
    • Although Casper was a popular comic, the cartoon show really enhanced the character’s popularity and made him recognizable around the world.
  • In 1995, almost half a century later, Casper returned to movie theaters in the first-ever live-action film with a CGI character as the lead role! 

SUMMARY

  • Casper (1995) has a main cast of four humans and four ghosts. When the snobby Carrigan Crittenden (Cathy Moriarty) inherits Whipstaff Manor, she and her male companion Dibbs (Eric Idle) soon discover it is haunted by malevolent spirits. They hire Dr. Harvey (Bill Pullman) a ghost therapist who has been traveling across the country, claiming to be able to help ghosts move on from their haunting places. He brings with him his young daughter, Kat (Christina Ricci). 

After moving into the house, Dr. Harvey and Kat become acquainted with the ghostly trio (Fatso, Stretch, and Stinky) and their young “nephew,” Casper. Casper is infatuated with Kat, and they form a strong friendship that can withstand life and death. 

MAKING OF

  • Produced by Stephen Spielberg, with Amblin and Dreamworks, Casper was the first-ever hybrid animation/live-action movie made with Universal Studios.
  • Brad Silberling, who would later go on to direct “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” took on the role of director.
    • He was a TV director, and this was his first time directing a full-length feature film! He said that Stephen Spieberg was supportive as a producer, and let him make his own creative choices–this reminded me of the comments people made about Tim Burton as the director of Nightmare Before Christmas .
    • Silberling also has no experience with special effects, which would prove to be a huge component of the directing experience.
  • Originally, Alex Proyas (iRobot, The Crow) was hired as director, but left just before production began.
    • His plan was for the movie to be a darker take on the children’s cartoon, with influences from The Wizard of Oz. It would have been different, but we still wouldn’t mind seeing that movie if he still wants to make it! 
  • The Screenplay went through various changes throughout the movie process, but it was written originally by Deanna Oliver, Sherri Stoner, with an uncredited rewrite by JJ Abhams!
    • Deanna Oliver was also a writer on The Brave Little Toaster, and she played the main character! Sherri Stoner is also a prominent screenwriter who has worked on The Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures.
    • The rewrite seems to have happened after Proyas left the film, to make it more light-hearted, and focused on the emotional connection between Kat, a grieving teenage girl, and Casper, a soul that mourns his lost life. Years later, Proyas remarked that the movie was a missed opportunity, and the attempts at emotion were forced.

SET DESIGN AND SPECIAL EFFECTS

  • Almost the entire movie was shot on a soundstage! The set with Whipstaff manor was three levels high, which was rare. Brad Silberling notes that usually directors are lucky to get to work with one level of a set, let alone three.
  • The set was designed by Leslie Dilley. The crew was careful not to make the house appear to be like any other haunted house, so they modeled it after the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. 
    • Spirals in ceilings and other set pieces were references to the Harvey comic characters, like Casper and the Ghostly Trio, with their swirly heads.
  • The set was also inspired by the notorious Winchester House, with winding hallways and endless rooms. Scenes where Kat explores this were cut for time, but we can still get this feeling watching the movie.
  • The designers also wanted the sensation that “Dr. Suess Threw Up” with all the color, odd shapes, and various strange props that filled the house. It looked as if it had come straight from the comic books that Casper was known for.
  • There are cracks in the set that give it an old feel, like a broken-down house. These cracks were real! There had been earthquakes leading up to the shooting, and the set was damaged because of it. It was still safe for the actors to use, but they added to the realism of the set.
  • The crew also used hot resin guns that shot out spider webs to place all over the set!
  • The groundbreaking special effects were done by Industrial Light and Magic!
    • This Visual Effects company founded by George Lucas has worked on films like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Young Sherlock Holmes, Jumanji, and so much more. At the time when they were approached their Senior Visual Effects Supervisor and Creative Director Dennis Muren was not sure if Casper would be a big enough spectacle after the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. Once finished however, it was clear that Casper was different and a spectacle of his own.
    • The animation took 2 years and 28 terabytes (19 million floppy discs)! 
      • Compared to Jurassic Park’s 6.5 minutes of screen time for effects, Casper and his Uncle’s have a glorious 40 minutes!
      • The Special Effects team was well over 100 people, including about 30 animators and technical directors that would match the lighting of the characters to the lighting of the set.
    • The company needed fully edited scenes for them to add the ghosts, meaning that the actors had to act with only references to where the ghosts *might* be, based on Brad Silbering’s direction. Also, the film editor had to choose a lot of scenes with seemingly nothing happening in them during the editing process–it would be hard for him to understand at times what exactly was happening in the scenes he was editing.
      • The first edited scene sent to the company was the scene in the kitchen, where Casper makes breakfast for Kat and Dr. Harvey.
      • Because this was their first scene, you can see how the ghosts are animated differently here than they are in other scenes of the movie! The filmmakers didn’t like the way the characters were lit, as they seemed to look more like cell animation than the realistic CGI that they were going for.
        • They had to research more lighting techniques to get the translucent imagery that they were going for.
      • Previous films like, “Poltergeist,” and “Ghostbusters” used a combination of live-action and special/visual effects to make their ghosts. Casper had an entirely new look. 
        • What made Casper and The Ghostly Trio appear more real, was their relationship relative to light. These CGI characters casted shadows and refracted light, something that made them stand apart! Casper also has subtle body language and facial expressions, avoiding the over-the-top depiction that many animated characters have. Audiences have no trouble believing that he was once a living human, because he looks authentic.
      • Although computer graphics may seem faster and easier than traditional cell animation, each sequence was painstakingly animated at a high-resolution Silicon Graphics work-station. 
        • Artists had to choose shape, color and density, while maintaining correct lighting and camera perspective. A new model had to be created by an animator for each shape that Casper took. There are various scenes where the ghost becomes a shirt, a superhero, and a pillow. This had to be crafted each time, and the more creative the scenes were, the more difficult the animation.
        • There were perks over traditional animation, however. For example, animators were able to simulate objects that the ghosts would manipulate–rather than having to use actual props for the ghosts to move. Usually if a ghost is holding something, it’s actually CGI. When the Ghostly Trio first appears, Stretch is holding a CG newspaper; When Casper delivers pancakes, they are completely graphic as well!
      • There was originally a musical number shot for the film that did not make the final cut, because the animation would have been so expensive and hard to pull off, that they completely cut the scene. The song was called, “Lucky Enough to be a Ghost” and was sung by The Ghostly Trio.
    • Animator Phil Nibbelink was on the set of the film, standing by to render reference animation for the actors as they performed each scene! If you remember from our Space Jam episode, they employed a very similar process. Space Jam came out one year later in 1996.
  • There were also some practical effects used in the film, for example, in the construction scene, a wrecking ball hits a range rover–that’s a real wrecking ball and a real Range Rover! Also, lots and lots of fishing line was used to simulate the ghosts as they would interact with humans–the scene where Casper carried Kat away is an example.

SCORE

  • The original Casper theme song is incredibly famous, and it was written by too wonderful songwriters who gave us a lot of classic themes over the years. They were Mack David and Jerry Livingston, and because both men were capable of lyrics and melody, it’s not entirely clear who wrote which. They worked together on Disney classics like, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland!
    • The film also included a cover of the song by Little Richard, and it’s a certified bop.
  • In 1995, composer James Horner scored Braveheart, Jumanji, Apollo 13, Balto, and Casper. Of course he wrote incredible scores for many more films throughout his career, but with Casper, he excelled at bringing forth child-like innocence and wonder, married perfectly with emotion. 
    • I will never agree with anyone who thinks that Casper lacks emotion, simply for this score and the track, “Casper’s Lullaby.”
  • On the site “Movie Wave,” they say this about Casper’s lullaby: “it’s truly wonderful, one of the most lilting and beautiful of all James Horner themes. With two distinct parts – the first usually heard on piano, the second usually heavenly wordless choir – it is woven throughout the score and always makes a mark, but especially in its album arrangement late on. As fashions changed, later in his career Horner was frequently criticised by film critics for going too far with the emotional manipulation; back in 1995 it was still considered to be one of the primary purposes of film music and none did it better.”

STARRING

Brad Silberling was absolutely blown away by his actors and their ability to react to characters that weren’t there in the scene with them. The sets were being constantly manipulated, so everyone knew where the ghosts were supposed to be–almost convincing themselves they could see them. Silberling referred to this as “collective delusion.” The eye contact between the actors and the ghosts is what really sells the story, and the main cast delivered better performances than he could have hoped for.

  • Christina Ricci as the young girl Kat.
    • She is also well known for being Wednesday in  the 1991 Addams Family. She has appeared in other things like Ally McBeal, Saving Grace, and was Penelope in the movie Penelope. 
      • She originally met Stephen Spielberg as he was casting Jurassic Park, but she was too old for the role–but this was how she got her hands on the script for Casper.
      • Silberling believed that she was a genius performer, who really grounded the film as a strong, female character with a no-BS attitude.
    • The year of 1995 was referred to by Newsweek and The Christian Science Monitor as the year of the woman, or rather girl. It was dubbed this because up to that year many of the movie releases would feature boys or men as the main protagonists. In 1995 there was a bigger surge of movies with girls being the leads. This included A Little Princess, The Babysitters Club, Clueless, and more. While Casper is named for the boy ghost and is of course the title character, Kat fits into this role of the main girl because she is the living protagonist. 
      • When you look at it Kat and Casper are on equal grounding, helping each other. Kat’s character brings the emotional weight, providing her perspective as a young girl without her mother, who has been uprooted and forced to watch her father cope (unhealthily I might add) with the loss of his wife.
      • Kat is the one that reminds Casper that he once lived, bringing up the memories of his life that he had forgotten–and gives him the one thing he’s always wanted: a friend. 
  • Bill Pullman as Dr. Harvey
    • Many different actors were considered for the role of Ghost Therapist Dr. Harvey, but Brad Silberling was ecstatic to work with Bill Pullman.
      • Silberling was a huge fan of Bill Pullman’s subtle comedic ability, which he had seen in Spaceballs, and the 1992 film “Singles.”
        • He was looking for someone to be quote-on-quote “The Jimmy Stuart of the 90’s”–someone that could really anchor the audience and sell this universe and story so that it would completely believable, an everyday man. 
      • Stephen Spielberg was not familiar with Pullman’s work, but told Silberling that it was his movie and he trusted his judgement for a leading man.
      • After he had been cast, Pullman starred in While You Were Sleeping, and was cast in Independence Day! By 1996, he was a huge star!
  • Eric Idle as Dibs
    • He is of course of Python fame and you can hear more about him in our Monty Python and the Holy Case episode.
    • Silberling was thrilled to work with him as a Python fan, and he was able to improvise a lot in the film with his acting mate, Cathy Moriarty.
  • Cathy Moriarty as Carrigan
    • She has been in many other things including Raging Bull, Analyze That, Soapdish, Kindergarten Cop, and Tales from the Crypt.
    • Her Tales from the Crypt credit is funny, since the Crypt Keeper actually appears in Casper!
  • Devon Sawa as the onscreen live Casper
    • He has been in things like Final Destination, Now and Then, and Nikita. 
    • In “Now and Then,” he was Christina Ricci’s love interest as well! 

Ghost Voices

  • Malachi Pearson as Casper
    • He is known for being Rambo in Family Matters and Eric in Suburban Commando.
  • Joe Nipote as Stretch
    • Known for portraying Frankie Waters in Viper and Boomer in Meatballs II.
  • Joe Alaskey as Stinkie
    • He is a voice actor that has since taken over many of the voices that Mel Blanc used to do. He has done voices for Roger Rabbit, Avatar the Last Airbender, and he was Grandpa Lou Pickles in Rugrats. 
  • Brad Garrett as Fatso
    • He was the brother Robert in Everybody Loves Raymond, Eddie in Til’ Death, and has had many other roles as well. 

Cameos

  • Dan Akroyd as a Ghostbuster (clever)
  • Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci
    • He has played characters with this name before on SNL, Sin City Spectacular, Unhappily Ever After, Married with Children, Blossom, and many others. He can also be found as the voice of Vinny in Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
    • He also improvised nearly all of his lines as this character!
    • When he walks out of the mansion with his head screwed back behind him, it was a reference to the black comedy, “Death Becomes Her” as Meryl Streep’s character suffers a similar fate with VERY similar effects.
  • Clint Eastwood
    • He appears as one of the faces in the mirror that Dr. Harvey sees along with the next three actors.
    • In order to convince Eastwood to be in the movie, Speilberg told him that he himself would be in the scene as well. So, they did shoot a scene where Stephen also appears in the movie, but they cut it out.
  • Rodney Dangerfield
    • Rodney Dangerfield is thought to be the “human” version of Fatso–each actor that appears in the movie is thought to be what that ghost looked like when alive.
  • Mel Gibson
    • Gibson is Stinky’s counterpart as well!
  • The Crypt Keeper/ John Kassir
  • Jessica Wesson as Amber who wants to have the party at her house
    • If you are a Boy Meets World fan then you may recognize her but she was also in Home Improvement and Judging Amy.
    • Silberling said that her role in the movie was meant to be similar to Stephen King’s Carrie, as she plots to ruin the main protagonist’s life at a school dance.

RECEPTION

At the box office, Casper was a success. It made over $100,000,000 in the US alone, earning the title of a summer blockbuster. But, critically, the movie didn’t do so well. 

Many critics felt that even though the movie attempted to achieve a certain level of emotion, it fell flat. The general consensus was that it was a popcorn flick, something to entertain the kiddies with sometimes-funny humor that was lost on more sophisticated audiences. One critic did not agree with Silberling in regards to his actors, feeling that Bill Pullman often looked dazed, as if he didn’t know where the ghosts were supposed to be in the scene. 

One thing that audiences didn’t expect was the romantic element of the story, between a ghost that has been dead for 100 years, and a living teenage girl. When Silberling first worked on the project, he felt that Casper was a bit too soft and androgenous. He and the other crew behind the story felt that they needed to add the layer of him as a 12 or 13-year-old boy who has the chance to hangout with a girl for the first time. The line, “There’s a girl…on my bed. Yes!” was fairly controversial, and the family that owned Harvey comics was not pleased with this interpretation. You see, before the movie, no one had ever given Casper a backstory as a dead boy, and the comics firmly believed he was born a ghost. 

Another famous line in the film, “Can I keep you?” may have missed its mark with some audiences, but for others it rings in an unbelievably sad expression of loneliness. Casper asks this as Kat falls asleep, unsure if she truly hears him. At the end of the movie, Casper gets one chance to be a human boy again, and he uses this time to dance with Kat. He asks again, but this time the line holds a different meaning. Casper asks this question, knowing that the answer is no. But, he wants Kat to know that he loves her enough to ask. In a Refinery 29 article, writer Anne Cohen took a look back at the movie to “write the wrongs” of the past critics. She spoke about the line, saying, “Casper stands as a powerful childhood introduction to the complex realities of death, and the need to let go of loved ones — even if, to echo those swoon-worthy four words, we keep their memories with us forever.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/IlrigGzR6pM?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1

FUN FACTS

  • John Lassetter had a stuffed Casper doll as a child, with a pull-string back. This was the inspiration for Woody’s design in Toy Story!
  • Stephen Speilberg would appear on set a lot, but Silberling didn’t let him sit in his chair and watch. He would ask him to do various tasks for the movie–in one scene, he’s dangling a lighbulb in front of the camera as Dr. Harvey and Kat hide in a closet. In another, he was the one to throw a huge glob of pudding on Dr. Harvey!
  • In order to sell more VHS copies MCA/Universal teamed up with a few companies to make the purchase more appealing. One promotion was that if you bought it you would receive a free 12-pack of Pepsi and another movie title. Pepsi would help further by running a Casper themed commercial for two weeks. It is shown to the right.
  • Baskin Robbins also got in on the action by having a special Casper Halloween Polar Pizza Ice-cream and a flavor called Red, White, and Boo. 

The team behind Casper took a ghost from 1940 and placed him firmly in 1995. They even incorporated the show, “Hard Copy” to establish the time, and set the tone for a cheesy, yet beautiful film. Casper makes great use of believable characters, who interact with ghosts the same way you or I might. It introduces young audiences to the concept of death–even the death of a child. Romantic subplot aside, it represents a strong, beautiful friendship between Kat and Casper, and shows the healing journey of Dr Harvey with the unlikely help of The Ghostly Trio. Almost every character experiences growth (maybe with the exception of the two villains), meaning that this movie added a new depth to familiar characters. 

With great acting, a unique story, and incredible score, Casper is real to anyone, even those of us who don’t believe in ghosts.


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