We all know the danger that comes with revisiting the movies that we loved as kids. It’s a fun exercise in nostalgia to go back and watch them—but the sad truth is that most of them don’t hold up. These things were made for kids, after all, and kids don’t really care about quality. Not everything was designed to cater to kids and adults alike—that was a system that Pixar became great at starting in the later half of the 1990s. But when I was younger, everything was a mixed bag. For every Addams Family and Addams Family Values there was a Rock-a-Doodle or Dennis the Menace.
In an age that was trying to capitalize on recreating older cartoons for a new generation, Casper could easily have been the most likely to fail. When I went back to watch it as an adult, I wasn’t expecting any of the magic I remembered from my youth. But it was all there, right where I left it.
Having always had an interest in ghosts and spooky things, even as a young kid, Casper was right up my alley from the very beginning. Add to that that it was set in a real town—believe it or not—and it almost felt like the movie was made for me.
Sure, not everything about it holds up. Some of the jokes, some of the effects, but I’m talking about the movie. The story, the characters… these things hold up so unbelievably well that I have to call Casper one of the most underrated kid’s features of all time. I was stunned to go back and see just how good it truly was.
This has everything kids want out of a movie. It’s funny, it’s silly, but it’s also full of heart. And it’s incredibly sad, but not in a way that lingers or feels dangerous, it’s as emotional as t needs to be. That, I think, is the key to its success and why it’s a film that more people—young and old—need to go back and check out.
Much like the town the movie’s set in, Casper is inherently a story about friendship. More pointedly, it’s about making friends when you feel like an outcast, when you feel like nobody knows or understands or even wants to be close with you. Finding one person you relate to, who you connect with, can take away so much of the strain that comes with adolescence. That’s at the core of Casper.
But it is also about understanding mortality and eventually accepting it. This is the one thing connecting every single character in the movie. Kat lost her mother and is the closest to genuinely accepting that she is gone—but to the point that she almost doesn’t even want to think about her. Her father, the adult who should be the most well-adjusted, has the hardest time affecting his wife’s death.
His inability to cope is basically what makes the plot—or at least his involvement with it—possible. He’s literally chasing ghosts because he can’t believe that his wife is truly gone.
Then you have Casper. Obviously, being a ghost, Casper should be able to be the most accepting of death and mortality—but he’s not. He’s wrapped up in this device that could return him to mortality, that’s what basically drives the plot forward as it goes. But he has the hardest time accepting what happened to him. Not just because he’s a ghost and it’s alienating, there are other factors as well.
Casper gives a genuinely heart-wrenching monologue about his own death. He was a kid who was simply trapped alone in the snow and either got pneumonia, froze to death, or both. The details are kept understandably vague. His father died still trying to find a way to bring his son back to life. What happened to Casper was so unfair, it’s almost impossible to find a way to accept. And yet, by the end of the film, Casper has made peace with himself and with his situation.
He gives up a chance at life, gives up a chance to reclaim the life that was unfairly taken away from him. I’ve seen very few better displays of strength and growth by a cartoon character in a kids movie than that.
Because of its focus on mortality, the feature is full of death. Some of our main characters die, even Kat’s father, just because there’s the conceit that they can all come back as ghosts.
But the main focus and where Casper succeeds unbelievably well is in the friendship between Casper and Kat. They’re friendship is completely believable. They’re alone, but also bonded by the concept of loss. At the same time, there are things that keep them apart.
There’s an excellent moment, where Casper tries to have a “real talk” moment with Kat as she’s drifting off to sleep, where he asks if she’d date him if he were alive. And there’s this great bit where we get the heartwarming “Can I keep you?” line as he hovers just above her ear—and then she asks him to close the window because she feels cold. As much as he relates to someone, he still can’t be close to anyone. That’s the true alienation of being a ghost.
These are incredibly deep, resonate themes for a kid’s movie. But those are the qualities that make a feature of this type stand the test of time. Casper might have been the last title you’d expect to do that, but that’s what makes it all the more special.
You would never expect Casper, of all things, to be this good. Everyone loves to watch Hocus Pocus around the Halloween season. Kids who were born a few years later might watch Halloweentown. But if you’re going back to check out Halloween-themed kids’ movies from your youth, give Casper another shot. I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed.