Phantom of the paradise

CASPER Brad Silberling (PG) Casper - the Macaulay Culkin of ectoplasm - represents what American adults want from life after death: the possibility of everlasting niceness. By Adam Mars-Jones
Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that a ghost story should be haunted. Casper, the latest in a long line of cartoon characters to "cross over" (as mediums say) to the big screen, is most of the time a patchwork of movie references and echoes. The special effects are very intricate, which comes with the territory when Steven Spielberg is one of your executive producers, and at first it seems rather a novelty that Casper himself has texture. He has the contour of a new-born baby, but he's translucent, like a jellyfish of the air, and he carries a strong visual suggestion of squeezability - like upmarket toilet paper in the advertisements on TV. Perhaps they designed the Casper toys first, and worked out from that how he should appear on screen. Sensible priorities.

But then you remember Ghostbusters, where the ghosts, though less well done, were similarly squidgy (they looked like depraved cousins of Mr Blobby). After that, all it takes is for Casper to put on a chef's hat when he's cooking breakfast, and you understand that he really derives from the Pillsbury Doughboy - in whose ads squeezability was a crucial feature.

Casper is a friendly ghost living with three oppressive ghost uncles in a New England mansion apparently built by Gaudi (Lesley Dilley, the production designer, seizes the chance to pay homage). The special effects on Casper represent the equivalent in information of 19 million floppy discs, and still the hero is a bit... well, floppy. He's got plenty of disembodied body language, but nothing to express. In Sherri Stoner and Deanna Oliver's script, he doesn't remember his past life, which doesn't help. As voiced by Malachi Pearson, Casper is a generic American male pre-adolescent, punching the air and crying "Yes!" when things go well, saying "Oh, man!" when he suffers a setback. He's like the Macaulay Culkin of ectoplasm.

The uncles have a lot more vitality, perhaps because they're voiced by stand-up comics - Joe Nipote, Joe Alaskey, Brad Garrett - whose inventions are capriciously animated for us (as with Robin Williams's genie in Aladdin), perhaps simply because they've seen more movies. At one point they make an entrance doing helicopter imitations to the sound of the Valkyrie music used in Apocalypse Now, and one of them even speaks the line: "I love the smell of fleshies in the morning." ("Fleshy" or "airsucker" or "skinbag" is how the living-impaired in Casper refer to the living.) Seconds later, exposed to sunlight, they go into a melting routine straight out of The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps this is what happens to film buffs when they die - they turn into heavily ghosted videos of their favourite sequences. The uncles have also seen Beetlejuice, to judge by a scene towards the end of the film, when the dead and the living are reconciled, and the ghosts entertain.

Beetlejuice is a recurring reference point, though first-time director Brad Silberling can't hope to match Tim Burton's flair and brio. Silberling keeps the sequences clanking by like cars on a ghost train, while with Burton the fun starts when he goes off the rails. The female lead of Casper, Kat (Christina Ricci), the first person not to be frightened by Casper, seems to be inspired by the Winona Ryder role in Beetlejuice, though Ricci is potentially the more interesting performer. Her portrayal of Wednesday in the two Addams Family films was an astonishingly complete subversion of everything America wants young girls to be - worthy to be put up there with Darlene from Roseanne in the pantheon of negativity. In Casper, Ricci is disturbingly wholesome.

Cathy Moriarty, playing the villainous new owner of Casper's home, can't be accused of that. Her first action in the film is to stub out her cigarette on the gleaming table in a lawyer's office, and after that there's no holding her. Moriarty has a strong facial resemblance to Faye Dunaway, combined with a campy sensibility that gives her direct access to realms that Dunaway only reached by mistake (Mommie Dearest). At one point in the plot, her character reappears as a cartoon, and the animators do her proud with a visual cocktail of Morticia Addams and Jessica Rabbit.

If some of the basic situations of Casper come from Beetlejuice, it owes its cosmology to that landmark of New Age nonsense, Ghost. In Beetlejuice, the afterlife was essentially hell, but in Ghost, although selected baddies were dragged downstairs by dark shapes in a way that did not look good, the emphasis was on moving upwards, once you'd settled your mortal business, into the light. This was a way of squaring the circle by pretending you can reconcile different denials of mortality - pagan survivals like ghosts, and sentimental entities like personalised angels - in a structure that still seems vaguely Christian.

In Casper, the universe is run on similar lines. Ghosts, again, are people with unfinished business. They have "issues", as the therapists say, that prevent them from accepting death. So Kat's father (Bill Pullman) is a therapist for the dead, helping to resolve those issues, not exactly exorcising ghosts but weaning them from their co-dependence on the living. His underlying reason for this work is grief over the death of his wife, so in fact he, too, has issues.

In due course the dead woman materialises as an angel, proving if nothing else that there is lipstick after death. She's wearing red, but then perhaps heaven has a colour advice facility (it would be awful to spend eternity in a colour that wasn't you). In a very odd speech, the angel gives her widower advice about parenting: don't ask her to wear a T-shirt under her bathing suit. It's a funny old world, where dead mothers are more comfortable with their daughters' sexuality than living fathers are, and the subject is wrapped up in other-worldly candy floss.

There was a time when you could imagine that this sort of pseudo-spirituality was tailored to childish understanding, or thrown as a sop to a religious lobby with power to endorse or anathematise family entertainment. But as time goes on, it looks as if this is what American adults really want - every film a seance, bringing the message that the dead aren't dead. The dead can see you, the dead forgive you (with lots of tinkly New Age music), the dead are waiting for you - but in a nice way.

n On release from Friday