The mentality behind scary movie for kids is somewhat daunting. As “Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour” proved this weekend, it’s not an easy gig. There’s that line – when scary becomes frightening and nightmares become too close to reality – that a children’s “scary” movie cannot cross.
These movies therefore must accommodate their younger audiences by being funny enough to entertain while having moments that might inspire fleeting shrieks and hands over the eyes. Not to mention the fact that they must be enjoyable for all ages. Not just for the children, these films must entertain the people with the money: the parents who will have to sit through them for two hours, holding hands when needed or laughing along.
In this sense, the film adaptation of “Casper” knows what it’s doing. The movie is a precursor to today’s kids movies, crammed with enough crude humor to entertain the younger audience as much as it is with pop-culture allusions to satisfy those who don’t think getting slimed is laugh-out-loud hilarious. We get cameos from Clint Eastwood, Rodney Dangerfield and Mel Gibson; even Dan Aykroyd shows up in full-on Ghost Busters apparel, telling them to call someone else. Then there are literary references, most notably the Lazarus machine, which has the ability to bring back ghosts to human form, whose button is hidden in a copy of “Frankenstein.”
Most know the general story: one friendly ghost, three trouble-making poltergeists, a father searching for his dead wife’s spirit and Kat (Christina Ricci, “Sleepy Hollow”). The film is remembered for its surprisingly plentiful gimmicks and the lack of continuity – how can Casper’s hand go right through Kat’s but then pick her up? – but that doesn’t take away from the narrative.
Kat and her father, Dr. Harvey (Bill Pullman, “Independence Day”), have come to Whipstaff Manor on the request of Carrigan Crittenden (Cathy Moriarty, “Raging Bull”), an heiress interested in getting the ghosts out of the house so she can find the treasure supposedly buried there. Dr. Harvey is the leading ghost therapist who seems to have never actually seen a ghost, as he screams pretty loudly at the first sight of Casper. In the process of finding the treasure and getting Kat ready for the school dance, people die and come back to life, contact is made with heaven and Kat gets her first kiss floating above the ground.
But “Casper” is really a story of mortality and how we deal with it in our lives. Dr. Harvey explains ghosts are people with unfinished business, who haven’t been able to take that final step to cross over. And the humans they leave behind? They get caught up in the hope of contact from beyond and the sad truth of loss, so much as to build a machine to bring back a lost child from the dead and neglect a living teenage girl still needing a father’s guiding hand.
It’s also a story of friendship, even the most unlikely, of accepting people’s differences, on the basic level of “fleshies” versus ghosts. There are no real frightening moments – the worst is a glimpse of “The Crypt Keeper” in the mirror – but for a kid’s movie, it skims across the darker truths of life. Death becomes a transient state, something you can reverse with some red-glowing liquid and a chamber of metal. Even Casper gets his moment in the flesh.
Real loss can be mitigated, death can be cheated, but since it ends with a father-daughter scene rocking out to “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” the kid viewers don’t need to contemplate that reality too much. That’s up to the ones with the money to explain.