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Casper video should make spirits soar

The straight-to-video, live-action "Casper: A Spirited Beginning" (FoxVideo, PG, $19.98) is very much an amiable ghost of the original blockbuster. The story line pales in comparison, as do many of the visual effects, but that's become the medium's standard - which has been surpassed only by "Aladdin: King of Thieves," Disney's second try at extending its franchise.

What Casper does have is a low-key fun factor that takes obvious cheesiness and turns it into kiddie laughs. Steve Guttenberg, looking scary with a goatee and a closely cropped haircut, plays a work-obsessed single dad. In the wake of the neglect (it's never mentioned why there's no mom), his young son, Chris (Brendon Ryan Barrett), becomes obsessed with the spirit world.Casper kind of falls into the boy's life. The young bubble, not aware that he's a ghost, gets kicked off the train to spook training camp. He arrives in the quaint Deedstown just trying to make friends, and Chris is the only one not afraid of him. The boy takes the ghost on as a project, the way a kid would bottle-feed a pup that had lost its mom.

The convoluted explanation for Casper's origins is the impetus for the film, but it really serves as nothing more than a pretext for the maudlin story about father and son getting back together after averting danger, in this case the bombing of a haunted mansion the dad wants to level to build a strip mall.

And although James Earl Jones voices one of the Ghostly Trio spirits, and Michael McKean does a cameo as a demolition nut, it's Lori Laughlin (TV's "Full House") who, with fire in her eyes, steals the show as a loony conservationist.

It's now almost standard operating procedure for the big movie-video studios to capitalize on some of their hits with straight-to-video sequels, prequels and other franchise-extending projects.

But FoxVideo is shaking up the game a little with "Casper: A Spirited Beginning," its first foray into the growing field.

For one thing, 1995's "Casper" was a Universal film. FoxVideo vice president of communications Steve Feldstein says his company acquired the rights to the characters from Harvey Entertainment after Universal passed, and they joined up with Saban to finance the project.

NEW VIDEOS

THE MAGIC BUS - PBS's hands-on education series finds Ms. Frizzle (voiced by Lily Tomlin) teaching her bus full of kids about ants and baking. The former is explored via the workings of an anthill in Get Ants in Its Pants. The latter is tasted through a trip to a bakery in Ready! Set! Dough! Unrated, 1997, Warner Vision, $12.95.

- Max McQueen

(Cox News Service)

THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH - Cecil B. DeMille specialized in larger-than-life epics, and he clearly hoped the title of this 1952 extravaganza would describe his movie as well as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which provides the background for the action. Charlton Heston plays a circus boss who resists the charms of a trapeze artist (Betty Hutton) while keeping tabs on an egotistical aerialist (Cornel Wilde) and other big-top performers, some played by real circus stars. The acting is corny but the spectacle is - well, spectacular. And there's a delicious performance by James Stewart, covered in clown makeup for reasons the story eventually makes poignantly clear. Not rated, Paramount Home Video.

- David Sterritt

(Christian Science Monitor)

FIDDLIN' MAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BOB WILLS - Fiddler Bob Wills was one of the most influential musicians in country music and Western swing. This tape chronicles his career with the Texas Playboys from Turkey, Texas, clubs to Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa to their last days at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. Although Garydon Rhodes' direction is home-movie crude, he doesn't canonize his subject. In interviews with the likes of guitarist Jim Weidner, Wills is seen for his musical genius and his personal failings, which included chronic drinking, fiscal and marital problems. Unrated, 1996, VIEW (1-800-843-9843), $19.98.

- Max McQueen

(Cox News Service)

THE SEVENTH CONTINENT - Driven literally insane by the mind-numbing routines of their outwardly comfortable life, the members of a middle-class family decide to end it all in a methodical orgy of destruction, aimed at themselves as well as the material goods that have dominated their existence. Michael Haneke is one of Austria's most internationally popular filmmakers, and this fact-based 1989 tragedy is perhaps his most chillingly effective work. Its unsparing pessimism about the sanitized superficiality of modern society is certainly not for the squeamish. Not rated, Cinema Parallel.

- David Sterritt

(Christian Science Monitor)

ESCAPE CLAUSE - This thriller was never released in theaters, but it's better than many of the suspense films that do hit the big screen. Even though it's held down by Andrew McCarthy's ham acting, the story of a man trapped in the world of insurance fraud and murder is kept going by fine supporting performances from Paul Sorvino and and Kate McNeil. Forceful direction by Brian Trenchard-Smith makes it an A film of the B genre.

- Michael Blowen

(Boston Globe)

IRISH DANCE - Don't look for "Lord of the Dance's" Michael Flatley in this two-cassetter about Irish traditional dances. Do look for Irish (and Irish wannabes) the world over as they step, leap and swirl in dance competitions. Some how-to lessons are offered for beginners in this tape filmed in Australia, England and the United States but mainly the Emerald Isle. Unrated, 1997, Fast Forward, $12.99 (two tapes).

- Max McQueen

(Cox News Services)