The hero of Casper is a boy ghost with a head like an oversize lightbulb and Walter Keane eyes that bat up and down like Bambi's. Except for the fact that you can see right through him, he might be the Pillsbury Dough Boy's shy cousin call him Poppin' Dead. Anyone who has ever seen Casper, the Friendly Ghost, the winsomely sentimental cartoon series that ran throughout the '60s, knows that Casper has a bit of a dilemma: All he wants is a friend, but any potential pals get scared off by the sight of him. If, on the other hand, you've never seen a Casper cartoon (or encountered him in one of the comic books that have recently been his main medium), you'd be excused for failing to understand that the whole essence of Casper is that he's one lonely fellow. To establish an emotion like loneliness, a movie has to be willing, for at least a few minutes, to settle into a mood of melancholy quietude. And Casper, a Steven Spielberg production that jams half a dozen blockbusters into the processor, is too intent on being a hellzapoppin' funhouse jamboree a romper room for short attention spans to settle into much of anything.
For the benefit of today's media-drenched kids (and maybe their folks as well), Casper has been engineered to play like a slapdash sampler of pop favorites. Most of the movie takes place in a camp-Gothic mansion haunted by joker ghouls, a place very much like the Addams Family house. There are two wacky-pack villains, the mansion's owner (Cathy Moriarty) and her lawyer (Eric Idle), who are on hand to get irritated by the ghosts, just like the bumbling baddies in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. They hire a ''ghost therapist'' (Bill Pullman), who moves into the mansion along with his 12-year-old daughter (The Addams Family's Christina Ricci), who has been in a funk ever since her mother died. She needs a friend, too, and she finds one in Casper, the cuddly, floating baby-head from the next world; the two form a bond that's meant to recall the one between Elliott and E.T. But they have to contend with the mansion's other residents, a trio of oblong, squish-bodied ghosts named Fatso, Stretch, and Stinkie impishly anarchic pests whose dialogue is an encyclopedic spew of pop-culture references (Arnold, Oprah, the Wicked Witch of the West). These guys are the Snow White dwarfs meet Gremlins meet Robin Williams' Genie in Aladdin. Then there's the one aspect of the film that truly dazzles. I'm speaking, of course, of the special effects, which make the puffy, transparent ghosts seem tactile and ethereal at the same time, just like the ravenous green spook in Ghostbusters.
If the fast-forward prankishness of Casper were half as inspired as anything in Beetlejuice or Aladdin, the film's junk-collage quality wouldn't matter much. But most of the gags are secondhand. I kept wondering why the three nasty ghosts had to speak in tired, Dead End Kid Brooklynese; they sound as if they were about to break into a chorus of ''Gee, Officer Krupke.'' And the way the picture turns its adult characters into walking doofuses recalls the Styrofoam Disney comedies of the mid-'60s. (Just because this sort of thing has been standard in kiddie flicks for decades doesn't mean it's good.) Christina Ricci still has her adorably spooked stare she's a bit of a baby-head herself but her friendship with Casper is asserted rather than developed emotionally. What's depressing about the current Hollywood mania to literalize old cartoon series isn't that a show like Casper is such bad source material. It's that the movie version is like the cartoon without innocence a fairy tale with the soul of a rerun. C