According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, our female movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
“Can I keep you?” Those four words, whispered by Devon Sawa into Christina Ricci’s hair as they gently sway above her her classmates during a Halloween party, still have the power to knock me out.
Released in June 1995, Casper was an instant cultural milestone, the movie that sparked an entire generation’s sexual awakening, and taught us about death and grief along the way. My brother and I wore our VHS copy out from the sheer number of Saturday morning viewings. I don’t remember the first time I saw it, nor had I rewatched in years prior to writing this piece. But it’s embedded in my psyche in the way only special movies we grow up with can be, to the point where certain moments feel like my own memories.
Part of that is down to Ricci’s deeply relatable performance as a girl on the cusp of womanhood, building on the skills she’d already demonstrated in 1994’s Now and Then. Her character, Kat, is the throes of her first crush on a ghost, while also grappling with the devastating loss of her mother, and nurturing a father who can’t quite let go of her memory. I only found out later that, though directed by Brad Silberling (who would go on to executive produce Reign, Charmed, and Jane the Virgin), Casper was actually written by two women — Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver, who is also responsible for 1987’s heart-wrenching The Brave Little Toaster — a fact that gives new significance to its formative influence.
And yet, the initial reviews, overwhelmingly written by male critics, weren’t so enthusiastic. Joey O’Brien at the Austin Chronicle called it “passable, if mindless, kiddie fare.” (Still, he gets points for telling readers to run, not walk, to see Alfonso Cuarón’s A Little Princess, released around the same time.) Liam Lacey at Toronto’s Globe and Mail dismissed it as “pallid, bloated, and light enough to evaporate from the mind 10 minutes after you leave the theatre.” At the Los Angeles Times, Peter Rainer took aim at the film’s core messaging, writing that “Kat’s loneliness has no emotional resonance.”
The handful of women critics who reviewed Casper at the time weren’t any more receptive. Rita Kempley at the Washington Post dinged it as “duller than a dead man's eyes.” Writing for The New York Times, Caryn James conceded that while Casper might appeal to small children, but didn’t have the substance to keep adults entertained.
There, at least, she was wrong. More than 20 years later, Casper, based on the character created by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo and made famous by Harvey Comics in the 1950s, undoubtedly stands up to a re-watch. Are there dated elements and unfortunate moments? Duh. A Mel Gibson cameo, a fat-shamey joke about Oprah’s love of carbs, and a jibe about a “closet case,” in particular, stand out. Ditto Eric Idle’s rant about naming his dog Carrigan after Cathy Moriarty’s villainous character, which ends with him spitting out: “A little bitch, just like you.”
Overall, though, it’s a funny and often poignant film that’s worth reexamining today.
To the residents of Friendship, ME, Whipstaff Manor is known as the local haunted house. To Carrigan Crittenden (Moriarty, who gives Cruella De Vil a run for her money in both style and attitude), it’s a crumbling reminder of her rich late father’s disdain. When she inherits the condemned property, she’d ready to tear it all down — until her assistant and special friend Dibs (Idle, in fine comedic form) finds a map that seems to point to a hidden treasure hidden deep inside the mansion. But when they show up to claim the reward, they find they’re not alone; Whipstaff is home to Casper (voiced by Malachi Pearson, and played by Devon Sawa in his human form), a young ghost desperate for company, and his trio of ectoplasmic uncles, Stretch, Stinky, and Fatso (voiced by Joe Nipote, Joe Alaskey, and Brad Garrett, respectively). If she wants her treasure, Carrigan will have to enlist a specialist.
Enter Dr. Harvey (Bill Pullman, who I now recognise is an extremely hot dad) a self-proclaimed therapist to the dead who helps what he calls “the living impaired” deal with the unfinished business keeping them on Earth, so they can cross over. In reality, however, he’s trying to come in contact with this late wife, holding on to his last shred of hope that death doesn’t have to mean goodbye forever. With the promise of a big payoff if they rid the house of its former inhabitants, he and teenage daughter Kat (Ricci) move into Whipstaff. There, they make themselves at home as well as can be expected with three hostile avuncular roommates and one extremely earnest tween boy — all of them dead — in the mix.
Many of the original reviews of Casper focus on the detached quality of some of the performances, a criticism I suspect stems from its status as an early pioneer in computer animation, which actually holds up amazingly well. The movie has become such a ubiquitous element of a 1990s childhood that it’s easy to forget it was once a novelty. As one of the first mainstream movies to essentially feature computer animation as main character alongside human actors (along with 1991’s Who Killed Roger Rabbit?), it acted as a precursor to the modern age of CGI-dominated blockbusters. Watching it once more from the perspective of someone who just spent two hours watching a live action reboot of CGI lions singing, the acting doesn’t seem that stilted. Indeed, long live Moriarty as the cackling, vocal fried Carrigan!
Everything about her that scared me in childhood is now deeply aspirational — her penchant for black, her inability to empathise with others, her refusal to take shit from anyone, her room service order of a pint of Rum Raisin ice cream and a Coke for dinner — and her chemistry with Idle makes for great comic relief.
Rosanna Norton’s costume design, Leslie Dilley’s production design, and Rosemary Brandenberg’s set decoration all deserve praise for creating a creepy but deeply elegant atmosphere, full of cozy sweaters, moth-eaten lace, festooned turrets, and Nightmare Before Christmas-like swirls (I could write an entire piece about the foyer floor design alone)
But what’s most clear upon rewatching is that while the movie is named for Casper, this is Ricci’s movie. At just 15 years old, she excels in the role of the loner weirdo, craving the stability of a regular, small-town existence as her dad drags her across the country. It’s a perfect follow-up to her role as Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family, released four years earlier — dark and twisty, but with more feelings than a soulless but impeccably braided devil spawn allows for. Her comedic timing is impeccable, and she delivers lines with a wry humour beyond her years. But she also subtly conveys the wells of emotion bubbling within a teen girl grieving for her mother but whose father won’t make room for her to express it.
In one particularly striking moment, Dr. Harvey unpacks a picture of his late wife among Kat’s things, and stares at it longingly, alone in his memories of her until Kat’s snatches it out of his hands to place it on her bedside table. “Mom goes over here,” she says. It’s an acknowledgment that these two haven’t quite figured out how to share their sorrow. They’re still living it individually. In Casper, Kat finds a friend who weirdly understands her. Just as Dr. Harvey begs the grumpy trio to contact his wife for him, Casper is her link to the world beyond.
Death is a heady subject for a kid’s movie. But far from shying away from the topic of just how one becomes a lovable spirit, Casper leans right in, and isn’t afraid to get dark. The reality is that for a 12-year-old ghost to exist, a child has to die. Human Casper died from playing outside on his sled for too long, and his father was so heartbroken that he spent his life savings constructing a machine to bring his dead son back to life. Brutal.
The “Can I keep you” scene is genuinely sad. We’re seeing the robbed potential of a life cut short, a young man whose smirks could make hearts flutter, and who can pull off lines like “I told you I was a good dancer.” His mother’s white lace dress, which Kat wears as a costume, is a reminder of the wedding he’ll never get to have, and which her mother will never get to attend. At the same time, Dr. Harvey is learning to let go of his own dashed hopes and expectations, of a long life lived with his beloved wife by his side. James Horner’s hauntingly beautiful piano lullaby score evokes just the right amount of nostalgia, the tragic cherry on this melancholy sundae.
In that sense, 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.