3.5 out of 5 stars

Both Hollywood and the public have had a chequered relationship with the Ghostbusters franchise over the years. Children of the 1980s and early-1990s fondly remember the first film, Ghostbusters (1984), as well as the toys, cartoon series, and comic-books it inspired. The sequel, Ghostbusters II (1989), despite breaking box office records, was less warmly received. This is in addition to the tragedy of co-creator Harold Ramis’s passing and the controversy that plagued the poorly written reboot, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016).

Still, despite a weak sequel and a bad reboot, the nostalgia surrounding Ghostbusters remains firmly entrenched in popular culture. And in this third decade of the 21st-century, that’s all Hollywood studios need to see: dollar signs. The financial potential still inherent in the Ghostbusters franchise is the reason we got Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021). Which, despite the studios’ possibly cynical motives, paid faithful homage to the beloved series and was a beautiful send-off for Harold Ramis’s iconic character, Egon Spengler.

The sequel to Afterlife, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, is still trying to stay faithful to the essence of Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, and director Ivan Reitman’s original vision. While it mostly manages to avoid the pitfalls found in the 2016 reboot, hints of the cynicism that’s invariably present in Hollywood are beginning to show. The interference of studio executives is becoming just apparent enough to cause concern amongst ’80s and ’90s kids over future offerings from this newly revived Ghostbusting world.

After a short prologue set in early-20th century New York that, in a neat piece of filmmaking, establishes the film’s big bad without showing them, Frozen Empire picks up a few years after the end of Afterlife. Egon Spengler’s middle-aged daughter, Callie (Carrie Coon), along with her granddaughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), grandson Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), and Callie’s boyfriend Gary (Paul Rudd), pick up the Ghostbusting mantle, running the operation out of the familiar firehouse. Dr Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) joins the fray when a customer brings an old Mesopotamian orb, riddled with psychic energy, into his shop. Of course, unknown to its owner, Naadim Razmaadi (Kumail Nanjiani), the item contains an entity powerful enough to end life on Earth as we know it.

This, of course, is familiar territory not just for the Ghostbusters but for most action films. The fact that the final battle includes a sky beam (red this time) shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone anymore. However, while it lacks the originality of its immediate predecessor, this venture into skybeam action is, at least, entertaining. There’s an attempt here to recapture the look, feel, and world of the original Ghostbusters, which is as refreshing as it was in Afterlife and the recent reboot of Mean Girls (2024).

The dedication to faithfulness is most evident when we come to interact with the original Ghostbusters. That Winston (Ernie Hudson) has become a wealthy philanthropist doesn’t take any of the edge off his character and could be seen as vindication for the one Ghostbuster who was sidelined in the original film. Hudson is joined again by Aykroyd, who gives the most engaging performance of his recent career. His grandfatherly relationship with Phoebe Spengler feels authentic and moving, providing some of the most endearing and heartwarming moments so far in the franchise. Mckenna Grace remains a bright light in the world of what are usually cloying teenage actors. She offers depth to a character that, this time around, wasn’t as well utilised.

Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) also makes an appearance, but unlike Stantz, Winston, and Ghostbusters assistant Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts), who are all seamlessly enveloped in the storyline, Murray seems shoehorned in here. It appears that producer Jason Reitman (the original director’s son) might have had to balance fan expectations with Murray’s scheduling clashes. When Murray’s on screen, he offers us the perfectly deadpan character we’ve all come to know and love. This is particularly well utilised in a hilarious interrogation scene alongside an equally funny Nanjiani.

Like Murray’s perfunctory appearances, it seems that either the creators or (more likely) the studio execs are banking more on nostalgic references in this film. Some of these callbacks and references land well, including the return of now-Mayor Walter Peck (William Atherton) and the never-captured library ghost. Others, like the tiny Stay Puft Marshmallow characters, fall entirely flat. Those little fellas are starting to veer into Minion territory! That’s something no one wants to see.

Other callbacks, while enjoyable, feel a touch superfluous. One can’t help but feel they take up time that could be better spent developing the new generation of characters. Take Wolfhard’s Trevor, for example, who lacks a truly significant role in this film. His sole contribution seems to be constantly reminding everyone that he’s an adult now. We’re told multiple times that Trevor is 18, yet showing this through college applications or an adult relationship seemed out of the question.

Similarly, Phoebe spends most of the film in angst-ridden teenager mode, moaning about being “too young” to be on the Ghostbusters team. In this overly dramatic state, her smart-alec remarks that came across as authentic in Afterlife veer into mean-spirited territory here. Additionally, her genius isn’t displayed until the very last scene. When she’s not moping, she’s developing a friendship with (or possibly a romantic interest in) a teenage ghost named Melody (Emily Alyn Lind). Setting aside the significant problems of a teenage character developing feelings for a ghost, this brings us back to a Hollywood bugbear of mine. Namely, the industry seems obsessed with shoehorning every girl over the age of 12 into some kind of awkward romantic relationship destined to fail. Here, this comes at the expense of developing Phoebe’s leadership and creative problem-solving skills that were at the heart of Afterlife.

Speaking of romance, while Frozen Empire attempts to explore teenage love lives, it completely ignores the romance set up in its prequel between Callie and Gary. We assume Gary is now Callie’s official boyfriend, but this is never made clear. Did they get married or simply start living together? Is there any tension in their relationship? These are questions that are never answered. Any tension at all centres on the “in-between” relationship between Gary and Phoebe. Callie is, unfortunately, left almost entirely out of the picture.

The idea of a family that also busts ghosts together is a goldmine premise that deserves further exploration. However, because Hollywood prefers nostalgia, the new is sidelined to make way for the old.

In this, as well as the odd and unnecessary post-credits scene, we can see cynicism gripping yet another franchise. Yes, in terms of direction and story, Frozen Empire stays true to the original Ghostbusters‘ vision. However, that vision is no longer very original, and it seems the creators are determined to keep it that way. Unlike Afterlife, which was dedicated to passing the torch onto the new generation, Frozen Empire snatches it back and clings to the past with all its might. While nostalgia is entertaining, it won’t have the timeless appeal that original stories do.

This is why, when Winston declares towards the end of the film “We are and always will be the Ghostbusters!”, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was thrilled that the creators seemed to be suggesting that there wouldn’t be another disastrous reboot attempt like the one in 2016. On the other hand, I worried that the characters Afterlife introduced us to might never have the chance to become more than set-ups for the old team and their old jokes.

Ultimately, what we need in Hollywood is a healthy balance. This necessitates respect for films of the past, coupled with an original vision for the future. Ghostbusters: Afterlife struck this balance, while Frozen Empire falls short.

USA CANADA | 2024 | 115 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Gil Kenan.
writers: Gil Kenan & Jason Reitman (based on ‘Ghostbusters’ by Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis).
starring: Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, Kumail Nanjiani, Patton Oswalt, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts & James Acaster.