The film makes extensive use of computer-generated imagery to create the ghosts, and it is the first feature film to have a fully CGI character in a leading role. It tells Casper's story in a darker interpretation in comparison to the comics, cartoons and films of the previous years, especially with its theme of death, most notably the tragic backstory of how he died.
Following the death of her father, neurotic and spoiled heiress Carrigan Crittenden discovers he has only left her will at Whipstaff Manor in Friendship, Maine. Carrigan and her attorney, Dibs, learn of a vast treasure allegedly hidden somewhere within the manor, but upon investigation they find the manor haunted by a friendly ghost named Casper and his obnoxious prankster uncles, the Ghostly Trio, who scare the two off the property. A lonely Casper watches a news report of paranormal therapist James Harvey, and is instantly smitten with his teenage daughter, Kat. This leads Casper to inspire Carrigan to summon Dr. Harvey to Whipstaff. Harvey and Kat have an estranged relationship due to the former’s reputation and obsession with contacting the ghost of his late wife, Amelia. Moving into Whipstaff, Kat and her father quickly encounter Casper, who tries to befriend them, while his uncles try to scare them out of the house.
After befriending Casper during breakfast, Kat goes to school with Casper following her. She becomes popular when her class, upon learning that she is living in Whipstaff, agree to host their Halloween party there. However, Amber, Kat’s classmate who immediately dislikes her, becomes envious of Kat stealing her spotlight, since the party was originally going to be held at her place. Amber plots with her boyfriend, Vic, to humiliate Kat during the party. Harvey meanwhile attempts to have therapy sessions with the Ghostly Trio, who reveal that they know Amelia; in exchange for getting Carrigan to leave them alone, they promise to go through the "red tape" involved to get Harvey a meeting with his wife.
Meanwhile, Kat learns Casper has no memory of his life and unlocks his old bedroom to remind him. Casper comes across an old wooden sled, recalling that when he was a young boy, his father bought it for him. Casper was so happy that he played outside on a very cold day until he caught a severe cold and died of pneumonia. After his death, he became a ghost to keep his father company. A newspaper article reveals that Casper’s father was declared legally insane after he built a machine named the Lazarus, which he claimed could bring the dead back to life. Casper and Kat venture down into the manor’s basement, where they discover the Lazarus. Carrigan and Dibs sneak in, steal the formula that powers the Lazarus, and plot to use the machine to their advantage, believing it could grant them immortality. However, the two attempt to kill each other in order to test the theory; as a result, Carrigan falls off a cliff to her death, and rises as a ghost.
Meanwhile, Dr. Harvey becomes dispassionate, prompting the trio to take him out for a night on the town. Unknown to Harvey, they plan on killing him to make themselves a quartet, but end up having a change of heart after a drunken Harvey states that he is going to tell Carrigan off so they can stay in their home. However, Harvey accidentally falls to his death down a manhole.
Back in the secret laboratory, Carrigan confronts Casper and Kat and launches Dibs out of a window when he tries to double-cross her. Casper and Kat trick her into stating that she has no unfinished business on Earth, causing Carrigan to be involuntarily ejected into the afterlife. The alleged treasure is revealed to be Casper’s prized baseball, signed by Duke Snider. When Dr. Harvey returns with Casper's uncles, now as a ghost, Kat is obviously distraught. Her despair prompts Casper into sacrificing his one chance to return to life once more, restoring her father instead.
The Halloween party kicks off upstairs. As Amber and Vic prepare their prank, they are thwarted by the Ghostly Trio. A dejected Casper is visited by Amelia, who has become an angel in heaven instead of a ghost. As a reward for his selfless sacrifice, she temporarily transforms him into a human boy, until ten o’clock. The now flesh-and-blood Casper dances with Kat, while Amelia speaks with Harvey, revealing that she was so content with her husband and daughter while alive, that she has no unfinished business, encouraging him to move on. Amelia departs as the clock chimes ten and, after kissing Kat, Casper transforms back into a ghost, which scares off the party guests, leaving him and the Harveys to dance to the Ghostly Trio's music.Christina Ricci as Kathleen "Kat" Harvey, Dr. James Harvey's 13-year-old daughter and Casper's love interest, who has lost her mother and wants to make a friend.
Bill Pullman as Dr. James Harvey, Kat Harvey's father who is a ghost therapist interacting with the living impaired to cross into the next dimension while hoping to find his deceased wife.
Cathy Moriarty as Carrigan Crittenden, a spoiled, greedy woman who was angry about her late father's will to Whipstaff, until she discovers that the house contains treasure, and hires Dr. Harvey to get the ghosts out of the house in order to get it.
Eric Idle as Paul "Dibs" Plutzker, Carrigan's assistant.
Ben Stein as Rugg, Carrigan's lawyer.
Spencer Vrooman as Andreas
Chauncey Leopardi as Nicky
Wesley Thompson as Mr. Curtis
Amy Brenneman as Amelia Harvey, James' deceased wife, as well as Kat's deceased mother whom appears as an angel and came before Casper and gave him his dream of coming back to life only for one night after he saved James' life.
Devon Sawa as Casper McFadden (human form)
Garette Ratliff Henson as Vic DePhillippi, Kat's crush whom he along with his girlfriend Amber plans to sabotage Kat's party until they were scared off by the Ghostly Trio.
Jessica Wesson as Amber Whitmire, Kat's rival and Vic's girlfriend whom she along with Vic plans to sabotage Kat's party until the Ghostly Trio scare them away.
Malachi Pearson as Casper McFadden, a lonely ghost who was originally a 12-year-old boy who died from a pneumonia attack. He spends most of his afterlife in Whipstaff dealing with his ghouling uncles' antics while hoping to find a friend. He finds it with Kathleen "Kat" Harvey, while also falling in love with her.
Joe Nipote as Stretch, the leading member of the Ghostly Trio and one of Casper's uncles who bonds with Dr. Harvey.
Joe Alaskey as Stinkie, the second member of the Ghostly Trio as well as one of Casper's uncles who also bonds with Dr. Harvey.
Brad Garrett as Fatso, the third member of the Ghostly Trio and one of Casper's uncles who bonds with Dr. Harvey.
John Kassir as the Crypt Keeper
Brock Winkless performed the puppetry for the Crypt Keeper in the film
Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci
Dan Aykroyd as Ray Stantz
Fred Rogers (archive footage)
Steven Spielberg (cameo cut)
Producer Steven Spielberg was planning a film adaptation of Casper the Friendly Ghost. He saw an episode of the television series Brooklyn Bridge directed by Brad Silberling and saw potential in this work, recruiting Silberling for directing Casper. J. J. Abrams did an uncredited rewrite of the script. The screenplay gave a backstory of Casper being the ghost of Casper McFadden, a boy who died of pneumonia at 12, though some of the comics, particularly in the 1960s, portrayed him as born a ghost to ghost parents.
Extensive use of computer-generated imagery is used to create the ghosts, and it is the first feature film to have a fully CGI character in a leading role. In the mirror scene, Dr. Harvey was also supposed to transform into Spielberg. According to director Silberling, the cameo was filmed, but was cut for pacing reasons. Spielberg was relieved, feeling that he is not much of an actor himself and was quite nervous in front of the camera.
The soundtrack was composed by award-winning composer James Horner, who had worked on a number of previous movies for Amblin Entertainment, including An American Tail and The Land Before Time.
- "No Sign of Ghosts"
- "Carrigan and Dibbs"
- "Strangers in the House"
- "First Haunting/The Swordfight"
- "March of the Exorcists"
- "Lighthouse—Casper & Kat"
- "Casper Makes Breakfast"
- "Fond Memories"
- "'Dying' to Be a Ghost"
- "Casper's Lullaby"
- "Descent to Lazarus"
- "One Last Wish"
- "Remember Me This Way" – Jordan Hill
- "Casper the Friendly Ghost" – Little Richard
- "The Uncles Swing/End Credits"
Casper opened at #1 over the Memorial Day weekend, grossing $16,840,385 over its first three days from 2,714 theaters, averaging $6,205 per theater. Over four days it grossed $22,091,975, averaging $8,140 per theater. It stayed at #1 in its second weekend, grossing another $13,409,610, and boosting its 10-day cume to $38,921,225. It played solidly all through the summer, ending up with a final gross of $100,328,194 domestically, and an additional $187,600,000 internationally, for a total worldwide gross of $287,928,194, far exceeding its $55 million budget and becoming a commercial success.
Casper received mixed reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 44%, based on 36 reviews, with the site's critical consensus reading, "A meandering, mindless family movie that frequently resorts to special effects and transparent sappiness." Time Out London described it as "an intimate and likeable film". Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, calling it a "technical achievement, it's impressive, and entertaining. And there is even a little winsome philosophy." Robert Firsching of allmovie gave the film his average star rating while praising the film for its visual effects.
The CGI effects, which were considered cutting edge at the time, and the performances of Pullman and Ricci were praised, especially considering that, in the scenes where the Harveys interact with the ghosts, Pullman and Ricci were actually acting either with nothing or with stand-in maquettes used as animators' references.
Moriarty's performance was criticized, with Variety saying she does "a poor woman's Cruella de Vil". In his 2015 Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin gave the film a "BOMB" rating, objecting to the portrayal of Casper as a deceased child rather than a ghost.
The success of Casper secured Silberling the position of director for the 1998 City of Angels, a remake of Wings of Desire starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan.
A cartoon series, The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper, was released in 1996 based on the film. Fatso (Season 1-2), Stinkie, Stretch and Casper were all voiced by the actors from the film, while Dr. Harvey was voiced by Dan Castellaneta, and Kat voiced by Kath Soucie.
In the mid-1990s, Simon Wells co-wrote a screenplay for Casper 2, which he was set to direct. Amblin cancelled the sequel because they did not believe there would be enough interest from moviegoers. Wells also credited the uncertainty of actress Christina Ricci returning and Fox's ill-received direct-to-video Casper films as contributing to the cancellation of Casper 2.
Two direct-to-video folow-ups to the film were released by 20th Century Fox. The prequel Casper: A Spirited Beginning was released in 1997, and the sequel Casper Meets Wendy was released in 1998.
There were several video games based on or tied-in with the film released on the major consoles of the time, such as the 3DO, Super NES, Sega Saturn, PlayStation, Game Boy Color and original Game Boy. An LCD handheld game was released for Tiger Electronics in 1995.