GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE Review: The Fifth Time Is Not the Charm

Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, and a few OGs star in Gil Kenan's action comedy.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE Review: The Fifth Time Is Not the Charm

After 40 years, a mediocre sequel, a not particularly well-received reboot, and not one, but two legacy sequels, not to mention cartoons and other ephemera, it’s probably time for the Ghostbusters franchise to hang up the proton packs, pack up the neutrona wands, and store the ghost traps for good.

That won’t happen, of course, not where a major studio and potentially lucrative intellectual property (IP) like the Ghostbusters series is involved. Quality storytelling counts less, far less than financially exploiting the nostalgia of long-time fans.

Which brings us back to the second legacy sequel, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire. This time, Jason Reitman (Young Adult, Up in the Air, Thank You For Smoking), the son of the original duopoly’s ‘80s entries, isn’t directing. He’s just co-writing and producing. Reitman handed over directing reins to Gil Kenan (Poltergeist, City of Ember, Monster House), possibly out of disinterest in helming again, possibly out of boredom, or possibly to evade responsibility for another modestly enjoyable entry in a series that peaked 40 years ago with the 1984 original.

That 1984 entry expertly mixed humor and horror, sarcasm and scares, and memorable dialogue and visual effects-heavy set pieces to a level (i.e., the highest) unmatched by subsequent entries. It also benefited from its central trio, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, and the late Harold Ramis at their relative peak career-wise, making subsequent sequels, with or without them, on the wrong side of disappointing. Note: There is no right side where disappointment is involved.

The latest, likely not last, entry, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, shifts the location from Oklahoma, the central site for Ghostbusters: Afterlife’s spectral spectacle, back to where arguably the series has always belonged, New York City and the now iconic renovated firehouse where the original Ghostbusters made their home and base of operations. It’s a welcome sight (and site), though the new entry’s New York feels slightly underpopulated, likely due to the studio's mandated cap on the production budget.

Whatever the reason, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire finds the series’s latest additions, Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a one-time science teacher turned spirit seeker, Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon), the estranged daughter of the late Egon (Ramis), and her two children, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), frenetically chasing a ghostly apparition. Gary drives, Callie navigates, and Trevor and Phoebe operate the ghost-catching apparatus inherited from Egon or gifted to them by a supportive Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), an ex-Ghostbuster turned entrepreneur and philanthropist.

The result of the first chase, while positive, leaves the usual amount of property damage behind and an old Ghostbusters villain, Walter Peck, now illogically elevated to NYC mayor. Using the property damage against the nu-Ghostbusters, Peck tries to shut them down. When that fails, he uses Phoebe’s age against the family, effectively sidelining her until she turns 18. Everyone else gets off with a stern warning and presumably a large repair bill Winston will pay from the billions in his bank accounts.

While vaguely logical within the rules of the Ghostbuster universe, sidelining Phoebe serves a narrative purpose: It leaves her alone, frustrated, and lonely, the inheritor to her grandfather’s genius, but temporarily prohibited from doing what she loves best, busting ghosts. It also gives a ghost, Melody (Emily Alyn Lind), as lonely as Phoebe and profoundly desperate for connection, the perfect opportunity to befriend the sidelined Phoebe during the remainder of Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’s overstuffed, over-busy two-hour running time.

Of the nu-Ghostbusters, only Phoebe receives a recognizably complete character arc, leaving Gary, Callie, and Trevor scrambling for screen time and anything meaningful to do or contribute once the latest entry’s Big Bad, an ancient, generic villain who wants to cover the world in ice (insert multiple yawns here), makes his appearance and returns Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire to over-familiar ghost-busting territory, complete with CGI effects (clouds, smoke, and so forth) we’ve seen countless times before, often better conceived and even better executed.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire also brings back Ackroyd and Murray’s characters, Ray Stantz and Peter Venkman, gives Stantz a sidekick, Podcast (Logan Kim), a holdover from the last entry, and adds an unnecessary subplot involving Nadeem Razmaadi (Kumail Nanjiani, sleepwalking through a tiresomely underwritten role), the underachieving grandson of a mighty, ghost- and demon-fighting warrior. The screenplay gives the desperately wisecracking Nadeem a semblance of an arc, from selfish, self-centered screw-up to slightly less selfish, slightly less centered warrior, that could have been easily excised or given to another, preexisting character.

Add to that an expository interlude at the Museum of Natural History with Patton Oswalt’s Hubert Wartzki’s librarian character and Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire feels positively overcrowded with characters, probably because it is. With too many characters and too many subplots all vying for screen time, the nu-Ghostbusters, Phoebe, and her touching, possibly queer-coded arc aside, get shoved into supporting roles in what should have been their own standalone film.

Not surprisingly, Stantz, Venkman, and Winston add little more than nostalgic value, but we knew that going in. As a series that’s long coasted on fond audience memories for a single consensus classic and several middling ones (at best), fan service fueled by nostalgia seems to be all that’s left. Frankly, that’s not enough anymore.

Ghostbuster: Frozen Empire opens Friday, March 22, only in movie theaters, via Sony Pictures.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

  • Gil Kenan
  • Gil Kenan
  • Jason Reitman
  • Ivan Reitman
  • Mckenna Grace
  • Annie Potts
  • Carrie Coon
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Bill MurrayCarrie CoonDan AckroydErnie HudsonGhostbusters: Frozen EmpireGil KenanJason ReitmanMckenna GracePaul RuddIvan ReitmanAnnie PottsAdventureComedyFantasy

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