Can I Keep You: Casper (1995)
Every year, in the middle of the summer when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences meets and discusses their rules and regulations, a cavalcade of think pieces and open letters for adding or changing the established awards structures will be released. Stunt work will always be at the forefront; a split of comedy and drama, or clarifying rules on what constitutes a Supporting performance. Every year around that time, I will start beating my drum for a new kind of performance category, one that takes into account the choices of directors, the skill of animators and editors, and the performance of a skilled thespian at its heart. It’s hard for me to just call this a ‘Motion Capture Performance’ award, as I feel non physical performances like Scarlett Johansson (Her) and Amy Poehler (Inside Out) deserve consideration; The astonishing combination of performance and makeup put forth by Doug Jones in The Shape of Water; the unique collaborative process of the Brothers Gunn with Bradley Cooper for Rocket Raccoon (Guardians Of The Galaxy); Ben Whishaw’s adorable Paddington; and the indelible contributions of Andy Serkis to the world of motion capture, from Gollum (The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit series), Caesar (The Planet Of The Apes Caesar trilogy) and Snoke (Star Wars) - Andy Serkis would be the Meryl Streep of this category. But these augmented performances wouldn’t exist without a starting point, and for computer animated characters and the corporeal actors given the task to act against them, 1995’s Casper is the astonishingly well crafted and shockingly well aged genesis for CGI characters in a leading role.
Casper, based on the long running Archie Comics multimedia franchise, adds a very modern-90’s sensibility to the character. Setting Casper (Malachi Pearson) and his cheerful, eager to be a part of the living world demeanor against the cruel and ghastly intentions of the property owner Carrigan Crittenden (Cathy Moriarty), Crittenden is eager to ransack the treasures hidden in the home shared by Casper and his Uncles (Stretch, Stinkie, and Fatso, the latter played by a pre-Everybody Loves Raymond Brad Garrett). Unable to surpass the antics and obstructions of Casper’s mischievous Uncles, Carrigan and her personal supplicant ‘Dibs’ (Eric Idle) enlist a Ghostbuster and a Priest before hearing about the services of ghost therapist Dr. James Harvey (Bill Pullman), an obsessive and slightly nomadic widower looking for answers and dragging his daughter Kat (Christina Ricci), skeptical and desperate for the most normal life she can have, across the country as he pursues them. But the dilapidated Wagstaff Manor has more in store than they have seen before, as they live alongside Casper and his brothers and become involved in Carrigan’s plan to find a secret treasure hidden in the elaborate structure.
As a film, Casper has aged very well for a story depending on young performers and early CGI techniques. The playful design of Casper allows his animated character to avoid the uncanny valley of character animations, and even when certain human characters join Casper’s world of the bodily impaired, there is an excellent design base to transfer those actors looks to the ghost world. In much the same way the dragons in Game of Thrones work and the direwolves do not, because we can’t know the behavior of the ghosts, small effects like how the phase in and out of light and their interactions with physical objects work really well. Christina Ricci and Bill Pullman are excellent performers against their cast-mates who can not be on the set with them, and the animators work well to maintain eyelines and depth of vision captured on film to their final product. The film is also snappy, with a good blend of slapstick antics for kids and PG+ jokes for parents, with a slew of cameos (Dan Aykroyd as Ray Stantz, Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci, and in a mad dash sequence, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Rodney Dangerfield and The Crypt Keeper from Tales From The Crypt) that play out well for kids without the context of these classic pop culture icons. The production design allows for the controlled environment of a soundstage to feel grimy and lived in like an unkept Victorian manor, and later sequences evoke Rube Goldberg machines through the lens of toy shops and Pee Wee Herman - a warm and welcoming environment for our friendly ghost.
Casper also contains a moment of seminal millennial childhood romance, so pure and underlining a statement of love and friendship that even as a stilted young teenager at the time, I had a ‘Grinch Heart Growing’ moment. I mean, I hated Devon Sawa for taking away my one true love, Christina Ricci, but I would learn to make peace with him in the coming years as his career would expand to a variety of comedy and horror appearances that would make him one of the most featured actors around the turn of the century.