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SYFY WIRE ghosts

Casper: The Movie That Made Us Fall in Love with Ghost Devon Sawa

Remembering the Chucky and Final Destination star’s hauntingly brief friendship with a young Christina Ricci.

By Benjamin Bullard

There’s a pretty remarkable fast-track timeline that connects the then-groundbreaking digital effects of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece Jurassic Park to the visual feasts audiences now take for granted on screens both big and small. Somewhere along the way in 1995 — smack between Spielberg’s dinos and the full-on CGI space spectacle of 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, a friendly, familiar lil’ ghost named Casper got a live-action movie all to himself — and, in the process, scared up a minor CGI milestone of his own.

Casper (stream it here on Peacock!) was a not-too-spooky family comedy starring a bevy of big-ticket actors, and it handed the beloved, benign specter from the classic WWII-era Harvey Comics the first all-CGI leading role in cinema history. The feat marked a first-to-theaters achievement that juuust snuck in ahead of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of Pixar’s innovative, all-digital Toy Story gang… even if it was only by about six months.

Casper’s task was arguably harder, though. Even in his barely-there, wispy animated form (given voice by actor Malachi Pearson), the friendly fella admirably navigated the downright scary challenge of looking like he was actually flitting around in real-world environments. He even did it in tightly-framed shots that featured extremely well-known human faces… though we’re still wrestling with the tricky question of whether it’s accurate to refer to A-listers like Christina Ricci, Bill Pullman, and Monty Python royalty Eric Idle as Casper’s "costars."

RELATED: Casper Showcased Steven Spielberg's Commitment to Pushing CGI Forward

All of that is perhaps a long way of saying that every main movie star who’s ever seen screen time as a CGI sprite owes at least a passing tip of their digital hat to Casper, even if the film did appear on an accelerated movie-tech timeline that, like fellow CGI creation Thanos himself, was, you might say, inevitable. Within only a few short years of Casper’s arrival, computer-animated film characters were showing up absolutely everywhere, fitting into live-action and realistic settings just fine — from Harry Potter’s house-elf Dobby, to The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, to today’s entire Marvel-movie multiverse.

How Did Casper Die?

The glowing spirit of Amelia Harvey (Amy Brenneman) in a red dress hands a ball to Casper in Casper (1995).

Lest we get completely spirited away by its larger cinematic legacy, Casper did have an actual story to tell. It’s a tame, family-friendly take on themes that had long served as staples of the 1940s-debuting Harvey Comics stories, which boosted the film’s CGI reach by giving the classic comics’ “Ghostly Trio” — mischievous animated spooks Stretch (voiced by Joe Nipote), Fatso (Brad Garrett), and Stinkie (Joe Alaskey) — almost as much screen time as Casper himself.

Casper’s movie tale is pretty typical as not-so-scary ghost stories go, with Ricci (then in her teens) playing the lonely Kat Harvey — a young girl struggling to adapt as her widower dad (Pullman) travels around the country plying his professional trade. What's that, you ask? Why, cleaning out especially troublesome ghostly infestations in the creepiest of haunted places — what else?

Whipstaff Manor — the decrepit Art Nouveau mansion where the two stumble upon Casper and the Ghostly Trio — serves as the movie’s main setting, and conveniently holds the keys to every mystery about Casper’s human past. Known as Casper McFadden in life, he’d happily grown up in the home alongside his paranormal inventor dad before dying in childhood of pneumonia. Casper's already-deceased uncles, meanwhile, had conveniently decided to stick around too, haunting the manor (and scaring off prospective buyers) as the Stretch, Fatso, and Stinkie of the Ghostly Trio.

Wait… Casper was actually played by Devon Sawa?

Casper (Devon Sawa) embraces Kat Harvey (Christina Ricci) as they dance in Casper (1995).

After a rich, conniving woman (Catherine Moriarty) buys the manor and schemes with her lawyer lackey (Idle) to de-haunt the place, Casper’s big secret comes out: There’s a special potion locked away inside his deceased father’s basement vault, a brew that can return exactly one stranded ghost back to its human form. Kat sets out to help Casper retrieve the potion so he can use it on himself… but through a series of Home Alone-style hijinks involving the manor’s new owners, Casper ultimately makes a huge sacrifice that seals his permanent fate as a ghost, all to give Kat’s accident-prone father the potion — and with it, a new lease on life.

RELATED: Wanna Play? Chucky And Devon Sawa Bring Their Killer Feud To New Social Media Platform Threads

Even so, Casper does get to enjoy at least a fleeting reunion with his own human body, the better to share an innocently romantic, quick teenage kiss with Kat before the clock once again resumes on his ghostly immortality. As a real boy, Casper’s flesh-and-blood screen time barely registers in a late, blink-and-you’ll miss-it type of movie moment. But the actor who plays him in human form is indeed none other than a young Devon Sawa, better known these days throughout the genre-verse for his 2001 Final Destination turn and, more recently, his seemingly perennial (and kinda hilarious) victimhood on SYFY horror hit Chucky.

Aside from its niche in cinematic history, Casper is a pretty easy watch in its own right. Ricci and Sawa make for a sweetly-separated cute couple, the whole affair is pretty family-friendly (aside from a smattering of strategically-placed swear words), and the abundant CGI effects even manage to hold up decently here in the present day. Heck, there’re even some fun crossover cameos of the paranormal sort, including funny flybys from Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) and Ghostbusters’ Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) as a pair of exorcists who just can’t handle Casper’s crafty uncles.

Catch Ricci and Sawa in all their early-career glory in Casper, now streaming on Peacock... just in time, of course, for spooky season!