Jason Cochran
September 12, 1997 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The box office success of 1995’s Casper seemed unaccountable at the time. After all, the 50-year-old Friendly Ghost was nobody’s favorite cartoon character. But what seems like his biggest flaw — a personality as wispy as his ever-grinning face — may also be what makes him endure, something that the direct-to-video Casper: A Spirited Beginning knows all too well.

Despite the decades of Casper adventures, Beginning is a ’90s prequel in which a freshly deceased Casper (shades of Defending Your Life), on his way to ghost basic training (shades of The Frighteners), finds his way to an idyllic town where he meets a sympathetic boy (shades of E.T.), as well as Fatso, Stinkie, and Stretch, the ”Ghostly Trio” of the first film. The been-there plot, about a bullied 10-year-old (newcomer Brendon Ryan Barrett), a workaholic dad (Steve Guttenberg, natch), and ”the old Applegate place,” is just so much Jell-O through which materializes a truly creepy assortment of has-beens (like Rodney Dangerfield and Sherman Hemsley) and the manufactured ‘tude of an ad for breakfast cereal. And without the nicely brittle Christina Ricci of the first film as his ”fleshie” friend, all irony is exorcised, leaving Casper to flit from trumped-up crisis to crisis like some undead Lassie.

In Casper, the franchise-friendly ghost became a vessel for the misguided notion that glib references to pop culture are the pinnacle of wit. Now, with much schoolhouse rowdiness and cheerful computer-generated characters high-fiving little boys, he’s host to obvious riffs on Mission: Impossible and the Budweiser frogs that are as tired and kid-hostile as Joe Camel.

Yes, sequels can improve upon the original — see Gremlins 2: The New Batch, for one — but no matter. Though Beginning‘s spirit is earthbound, it’ll still fly, sell-through video being the babysitter that nobody has to drive home — or pay for twice. But know what you’re hiring: Tame, marshmallow-soft, and so darn friendly, this Casper, like those beery frogs, is only parroting the mantras of consumerism, and that’s what’s spooky. C

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