‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ is a shade of the original

Phoebe Spengler (Mckenna Grace) in ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’.

Phoebe Spengler (Mckenna Grace) in ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’.

Published Apr 12, 2024


By Ty Burr

Whatever element of surprise there once was in the “Ghostbusters” franchise has long been exorcised, but that’s okay: Hollywood assumes audiences don’t want to be surprised anymore, and it’s probably right.

The 2016 all-female “Ghostbusters” wasn’t half bad but got caught in the culture war’s crossfire, whereas the 2021 reboot, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife”, played like a mashup of the original 1984 film and TV’s “Stranger Things”, and it did well enough to spawn a sequel: “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire”.

The new film is professionally made, well-acted, entertaining enough and possessed of no earthly reason to exist aside from the care and feeding of intellectual property.

It could be worse. Under Gil Kenan’s workmanlike direction – the screenplay is by him and Jason Reitman, the son of the first film’s director, Ivan Reitman, who died in 2022 and to whom “Frozen Empire” is dedicated – the family from “Afterlife” is reassembled in New York City, in the refurbished firehouse where it all started.

Mom Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon), her sardonic son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things”), brainiac daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and mom’s boyfriend Gary (Paul Rudd) are carrying on the ghostbusting mission of Grandpa Egon (the late Harold Ramis), bankrolled by original fourth Ghostbuster Winston (Ernie Hudson), now a besuited Manhattan tech entrepreneur.

Janine (Annie Potts), Peter (Bill Murray), Ray (Dan Aykroyd) and Winston (Ernie Hudson) in ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’. Picture: Jaap Buitendijk/Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia Pictures

Where are the other two of the famous crew? Ray (Dan Aykroyd) is running a paranormal notions shop when he is visited by the shifty Nadeem (Kumail Nanjiani), who’s unloading his grandmother’s effects, among which is a mysterious metal orb glowing with demonic energy.

Aykroyd seems delighted to be here, and I guess we shouldn’t mind paying for an ageing comedian’s version of Social Security – let’s call it a pop-culture pension.

That’s more than can be said for Bill Murray as Peter Venkman. Murray shows up in two scenes, punches the clock, gets his laughs, picks up his cheque and goes home.

Which points at what’s changed in 40 years. Murray carried the original “Ghostbusters” on the strength of his unflappable sarcasm, turning a pretty good special-effects horror comedy into a classic of breezy, gritty New York City wit.

“Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” is less a horror comedy and more a reasonably successful pastiche of things that have worked before, and not necessarily in this series alone.

The icy eldritch god who serves as the main villain is a rehash of every CGI monster from the past 20 years.

The miniature army of Stay-Puft Marshmallow men are this movie’s Minions, and, honestly, by the internal logic of the Ghostbusters universe, they shouldn’t even be here.

Wasn’t the first movie’s giant version a projection of Ray’s imagination and not a spectral embodiment? Or am I taking all of this way too seriously?

Really, it could be worse, and “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” serves as an effective, forgettable family night at the movies or in-flight time waster.

Nanjiani gets the most dependable laughs as a deadpan goofball with an unsuspected gift, and it’s nice to see Patton Oswalt as an expert in ancient languages down in the bowels of the New York Public Library, whose famous lions get a ghostly goosing.

Fans of the first movie will be happy to see the return of Annie Potts as mother-hen Janine, William Atherton as the persnickety mayor, and Slimer, the globby green junk-food junkie who in 1984 was a tip of the ectoplasm to the recently deceased John Belushi.

With the sizeable talents of Coon, Rudd and Wolfhard mostly wasted on exposition and reactive one-liners, though, what little honest emotion exists in “Frozen Empire” comes from Grace’s Phoebe, who’s stuck in an adolescent funk made worse by the city’s sidelining her from ghostbusting for being a minor.

In particular, Phoebe’s scenes with a sad-eyed teenage spectre, named Melody (Emily Alyn Lind), have a tenderness that the actresses and film-makers perch exactly and intriguingly on the line between friendship and physical attraction.

Maybe the next “Ghostbusters” should be a straight-to-streaming young adult same-sex rom-com. Who you gonna call? Netflix.

∎ “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” is showing at cinemas nationwide.