Out of all the classic cartoon characters of the mid-20th century, Casper the Friendly Ghost has to be the lamest one. The only toon that could possibly come close to Casper in terms of lameness would be maybe Andy Panda, but nobody remembers who that is anymore. Casper is kind and fluffy and G-rated as all get-out, and only wants to be your friend, gee whillikers. It'd be fine if Casper were your mom, but you watched cartoons to get away from your mom. He's not funny, he's not interesting, he's just not....anything.

Part of the fault for Casper turning out this way lies with the studio that created him. Their production process involved screening finished cartoons in front of a test audience. Whenever the people reacted positively to a scene, the studio boss would order EVERY SINGLE CARTOON from that point forward have that gag or story beat. As you might expect from this process, Casper cartoons became very repetitive, and there's a reason the only short to gain any kind of fame was the second one created, There's Good Boos Tonight. That was the one where Casper had the pet fox and it died. Audiences found it very touching, and so Casper was doomed to an eternity of trying to make friends and failing.

In 1995 Universal Studios bought the rights to Casper and released a feature film based on him. I remember the movie season that summer feeling very dry. Me and my parents were planning to take a trip to the cinemas, but the only two choices were Casper and something called Fluke about a man who dies and is reincarnated as his family's dog. We ended up not going at all.

I found it very bizarre how convinced Hollywood was that a Casper movie would own the summer. Market analysts thought every cynical snarky 90's kid with a backward baseball cap was going to be into a whitebread ghost, because how could they not be? Stores stuffed themselves with all kinds of Casper merchandise, which just sat there until it all was marked down. Instead kids wanted to buy toys based on the movie Apollo 13, which caught everyone off-guard. The PG-13-rated astronaut drama was the only 1995 summer flick to grab any kind of cultural traction, with "Houston, we have a problem" becoming a cultural meme for the next twelve months. That fall Urkel would be saying it several times to the screaming delight of his studio audience. He never referenced Casper.

Fox Kids, under the same delusions, greenlit Universal's offering of a Casper cartoon based on the movie before the movie even came out. You'd think they would learn from this, but Fox Kids would get themselves stuck this way several times over the years, at one point being forced to sell a cartoon based on the David Duchovny bomb Evolution.

But all that baggage aside, if we judge the 1996 Casper cartoon on its own merits, is it any good? I hadn't watched it before it entered the tape-trading circuit; the star being Casper and all I avoided it like spinach. It turns out the cartoon was written and produced by none other than Sherri "Animation Goddess" Stoner and her buddy Deanna "Toaster" Oliver. They were largely absent from the Kids WB seasons of Animaniacs and I wondered why. You would think I'd be thrilled to discover more cartoons from them, but here's the problem....Sherri and Deanna also wrote the Casper movie. There was still a chance this could be bad.

The same studio using the same characters written by the same writers means the Casper cartoon is, officially and canonically, what happened after the movie....as if anyone really wanted to know. I do remember the promos at least, and my main thought was, "Is that supposed to be Christina Ricci??" The answer, I know now, is no.....at least not technically. Most cartoons based on movies take liberties with the design of their characters, because while getting the movie license is one matter, getting the likenesses of actors cleared is another entirely. This is why Evie O'Connell suddenly became a redhead, and Egon had such a funky hairdo.

This would be the part where I'd tell you how to get the show on some form of home video, and then say "it's not the FULL EXPERIENCE," but aside from two single-disc releases in 2007, Casper has never graced DVD, Blu-Ray or any streaming format. (It was a Fox Kids show, what did you expect?) The reason the episodes survive today is because of a major Harvey fanatic who taped them all first-run, with ads, in stereo. And it's rare to find a homemade VHS of any 90's show in dual-track sound, so for many of you, this may be the first time you hear these childhood ads in stereophonia.

The movie established that a psychologist named Dr. Harvey (I see what they did there) and his daughter Kat moved into a spooky old mansion called Whipstaff Manor. Casper lives there and so does his obnoxious uncles, the Ghostly Trio, who constantly pick on him. The antagonism between Casper and the Trio is taken from the decades of Harvey Comics Casper stayed relevant through, but he never lived in a specific place, he just roamed around the open meadows of the unnamed fairy-tale land all other Harvey characters inhabited.

Here's something interesting about Casper: it has no title sequence or theme song. It just shows the logo, followed by the title of the episode's first story. There isn't a credits sequence either; the end of the last story displays them near the bottom (which, for once, wasn't a network's doing). It's 22 solid minutes of cartoon with no filler. It was also an early adopter of the cel-less revolution, which allowed the animators to add blur and transparency effects to Casper and his supernatural friends. It looks good, especially when you consider this came out of Akom, one of the cheapest and blandest outsourcing houses of the 90's.

The first short of the first episode begins at the one-room schoolhouse Casper is currently being taught inside. Here's a thought....since Casper doesn't grow, does this mean he has to go to school forever?

The class is taught by Miss Banshee, whose schtick is that she randomly screams really loud now and then. Banshee announces the annual Spooking Bee is coming up, and when she realizes the entire class is asleep, she turns into a rooster and screams "COCK-A-DOODLE-BOOOOOOOOOO!!!" Note the Elmyra-looking ghost near the front of the class -- had to be intentional.

I was surprised to see Spooky! Spooky never appeared in the movie, and maybe it would have been a little better if he had, as he was the only tolerable thing about Casper comics. He is exactly the same here as he was on paper: a "tuff little ghost" with a New England accent and attitude to match. He's voiced by Rob Paulsen, the go-to man for "hey youse guys" characters like Fowlmouth and Steelbeak. Spooky's girlfriend Poil also made the cut. I like the name "Poil." I think it's perfect for a ghost, even if it's an accented alteration of "Pearl," which is what lazy writers named secondary female characters back when Poil was invented.

But then Poil started talking, and any appreciation I had for her went out the window. Poil is very stupid, in the 1940's "dizzy dame" manner, and she misinterprets EVERY SINGLE THING Spooky says. Any time Poil opens her mouth, it's to take an expression someone said literally. For example, Spooky is convinced he's got the Spooking Bee in the bag, but Casper thinks he has a trick or two up his sleeve. Poil replies with "But gee, Casper, you don't HAVE any sleeves!" Shut up, Poil.

At the mansion, Dr. Harvey is currently in a therapy session with Elvis's ghost -- one of the few times I've seen a cartoon where Elvis is actually portrayed as DEAD. "Now, if'n ya don't mind, I'm'a gonna go haunt Lisa Marie. What is she thinking?" Bad timing here....he's referring to Michael Jackson's marriage to Elvis's daughter, which ended around the time this episode first aired.

Casper asks Dr. Harvey for advice on how to scare, but Harvey's method is less than effective. "How about THIS? BOOGIDYBOOGIDYBOOGIDY!!" His uncles have no winning ideas either, suggesting the kind of lame sophomoric boos they specialize in. Isn't Casper's longest running gag that despite his gentle demeanor, he ends up scaring every man, animal and even inanimate objects without even trying? This contest shouldn't be a problem. Spooky should be getting advice from HIM.

Maybe Spooky is -- he and Poil decide to eavesdrop on the competition. Casper tries to scare Kat in her closet: "Woooo, I'm a haunted shirt!" But nothing. Kat is later in her room reading Catcher in the Rye, when Casper emerges from the book dressed as Holden Caulfield. "Woooooooo! Everyone is so phony, it makes me sick! Woooooooo!"

Kat deadpans in response, "That's not scary, it's true. Maybe if you popped out of a Jackie Collins novel...."
Then Casper actually turns into Collins and says "Her lips were pouty and moist as she sashayed toward the studio executive." This is the kind of show you get, kids!

The first ad in Casper history comes from Micro Machines. Their lineup was fairly large by 1996, but that was as big as it would get. Sales dropped off by the end of the 90's, and 21st century children would never have the experience of swallowing a really tiny car.
Unusually, this ad for Kellogg's is selling....nothing. Unless you count the subliminal addition of the giant Rice Krispies box in the background, it's simply an ad about the virtue of eating a large breakfast. Of course, a large breakfast benefits Kellogg's financially, so why would they not care? To make the ad "hipper" they have added Micro Machine-sized preteens rollerblading around the table and playing basketball.
Somebody had a bunch of useless coagulated goop -- what to do with it all? Sell it to children. It's all in the marketing. Here's what you can do with translucent glop: stick miniatures into it with tongs and create underwater dioramas! This is the first version of the "Wonder World" ad, which said the gel became useable after 45 minutes. Apparently not. This instruction was later revised to letting the mixture "set overnight."

After everything she's seen today, Kat is convinced nothing Casper can come up with can ever scare her. That's when he comes up with his coup de grace.....he turns into the creepy Casper doll sold during the forties and says its phrase: "Wanna be my special friiiiiend?" Kat immediately screams like murder and races down the hallway. Now THAT'S funny.

Transition to the following day, and the Spooking Bee. It turns out the Bee will be judged by scaring expert Dr. Albert Frankenstein, and when you've got THAT guy judging you, the pressure is really on. A lot of the ghouls crumble under it and give miserable performances. Casper is confident he's going to deliver the winning boo.

Right as Casper is about to go on, Spooky cuts ahead of him....and then Spooky turns into the Casper doll! He stole his bit! How rude can you get?

Casper doesn't appreciate that at all. He becomes so mad, in fact, that he becomes hideous with rage, which as luck would have it, puts him ahead of Spooky.

There's one more student left, though.

Yes, it's Poil. And she butters Frankenstein up by turning into the Bride of Frankenstein. He loves that and declares her the winner.

One thing becomes apparent when you watch a lot of Saturday Morning tapes from all over the country....the local material produced by the affiliate is often the weirdest part of it. This one was taped in San Francisco, where they had a goofy woman in bohemian clothes tell people to say "please" and "thank you." On the Weird-O-Meter I give it about a three. Maybe a four if you include the preschool message being delivered to a tween audience. Wait'll we get to the Batman tapes; there's some 10-level weirdness going on there.
The junk food you could get away with selling as "lunch" in the 90's was glorious. Here is Dunkaroos, the cookie-and-frosting sugar rush endorsed by a singing marsupial. Everybody knew the song: "Dunkaroos, Dunkaroos, ya don't just eat, ya Dunkaroo!" Curiously, they only used it for the first ad, and never again during the next few years Dunkaroos stayed on the market.
1996 was a dead zone for collectible cards -- in between the sports-card crash and the monster-card craze that wouldn't begin until '98. There were also Pogs taking up the slack and shrinking the market further. Here, curiously, is a Star Wars card game being sold within that time frame AND during a time when the original trilogy was least culturally relevant. The films were about to be re-released and everything would blow up again, but that was a year away. I hope these card game makers didn't throw out their stock by then.

A typical Casper episode was two long shorts, with a short-short in between that was usually a song or experiment. Episode three has a nifty one that features a completely different drawing style, but for this first effort, "Fugedaboudit," we get Fatso singing and little else. Characters spontaneously singing was another Animaniacs trait that was borrowed over. But they also needed Randy Rogel, who wrote all those catchy songs. He was still at WB, and so most of the songs Casper attempts aren't that memorable.

In the third cartoon, "The Flew," the Trio is sick and bedridden. Casper has to take care of them, while still putting up with their abuse, AND he has to prevent their sneezes from infecting either of the two humans that live there. For if a human gets a ghost virus, they'll believe they're a ghost and hurt themselves! Guess what happens?

The germs go into Kat and she immediately tries to walk through a wall. Casper chases her through the house while she makes deranged faces and noises, slides down the banisters, and yells at Dr. Harvey that she's "invisible now." All the action shots Fox used for Kat in the promotional advertising were taken from this cartoon, and taken out of context.

Finally Kat makes a run for the ocean, declaring that she has to gather anchovies to make a pizza. She recovers only after she is halfway down the cliff, and is only saved by Casper functioning as a parachute. Dr. Harvey comes jumping after her, affected by the blight himself, and Casper has to make another rescue.

Polly Pocket's new playset is a waterpark, shown from as many angles as possible. The model is apparently so realistic that one girl says at least twice, "It's like I'm there!" That's a pitiful definition of "there."

Felix the Cat stuff, that's what's inside. Wendy's toys were the most elaborate of the Kids' Meal Toy Wars; far from just a plastic mold, it was possible to get things like a zoetrope or a stuffed plush. Wendy's gave you a whole stack of Felix Pogs AND a Slammer; McDonalds would have given you one Pog if that.

Goosebumps was a new show at this time, and as they always did with new shows, Fox Kids announced a contest to promote it. The grand-prize winner got to meet R.L. Stine and have him/herself inserted into a Goosebumps book. Anyone know offhand which one that was?*

*It was a boy named Jack Archer, who was written into three books: "Invasion of the Body Squeezers" (a two-parter) and "Revenge of the Body Squeezers".

The show returns with one last little bit. The Ghostly Trio is miffed that Casper had the good luck to never catch what they had. That luck will change once they put Casper's dustbuster in reverse and blow the germs into him!

Good thing they've never operated one before, because they point it the wrong way and make the germs attack them instead. As they run down the hall while the credits roll, Casper phases his head through the door and remarks, "Must be the Here-We-Go-Again ending."

In a surprise turn of events, Poil appears after the final Universal logo and says, "This ain't the end, we got tons of other episodes, not to mention reruns, and tapes, and we could just go on and on and on....." Neither of the other episodes I saw had a post-credits sequence like that.

Final verdict? After watching three Caspers, this show confirmed to me Sherri and Deanna are, for some reason, much much better at writing cartoons than they are movies. Casper retains much of the pop-culture bashing, adult-aimed references, and general sense of fun that Sherri and Deanna brought to Tiny Toons and Animaniacs. It's never boring, and for Casper, that's a gigantic achievement. There's even an attempt at a Looney Tunes style orchestral score punctuating every gag (yet, since only Warner Bros. wanted to pay for that, it's a synth imitation).

So if you ever get the chance to see this cartoon for yourself, I'd recommend you take it. Even with Poil.