‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ Review: Talk About Trying to Resurrect Something from the Dead

In Ivan Reitman’s 1989 sequel “Ghostbusters II,” a river of psychomagnotheric slime zipping underneath New York City gets charged up by the collectively angry feelings of the city’s addled citizens which, in turn, helps power up various evil spirits (ya know, ghosts). A similar idea is at play in Gil Kenan’s “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” itself a sequel to (we’re already guessing) a more-liked first film (2021’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife”), in which a nasty spirit attempts to kill off the human population by the power of, essentially, bad vibes.

Of course, that basic baddie bit isn’t the only similarity between Kenan’s film and the rest of the original “Ghostbusters” franchise. Such is the world of the legacyequel. But it provides the best roadmap for what Kenan and co-screenwriter (and “Afterlife” director and, of course, Ivan Reitman’s own son) Jason Reitman were attempting in their first follow-up to a mostly amiable reboot. A little winking and nodding to what came before? It’s to be expected, perhaps even enjoyed. But a twisting on a relatively simple plot for ends that can most generously be termed “confusing” and “joyless”? No one wants that. No one needs that.

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The vibes? Oh, they’re bad.

Picking up two years after the events of “Afterlife,” Kenan’s film effectively and regretfully paves over all of the stuff that set the first film even vaguely apart from the first two features in the iconic series. The Spengler family — mom Callie (Carrie Coon), son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), daughter Phoebe (McKenna Grace), plus Callie’s boyfriend Gary (Paul Rudd) — have decamped from rural Oklahoma to New York City, where they’ve moved into the Ghostbusters’ iconic firehouse and taken back up the mantle of bustin’ ghosts for Gotham. News footage does the heavy expositional lifting, and before you can say, “Wait, what?,” the four of them are chasing a massive sewer dragon ghost through Manhattan.

"Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire"
‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’screenshot

This is the best the film will get, the most in tune with the fun of the original and the nostalgia it’s so desperately trying to replicate. Ghostbusters! Chasing after ghosts! What an idea! Of course, as befell our original bustin’ foursome, the city doesn’t take too kindly to a bunch of randos blasting holes through buildings in an attempt to wrangle an otherworldly entity, and the powers that be really don’t like it when one of those busters is an actual child.

Thus, spunky Phoebe is benched, just as the firehouse’s overstuffed ghost-holding container (a Spengler original!) seems, well, pretty damn stuffed. Meanwhile, a mysterious orb appears in the workplace of an original Ghostbuster, crackling with bad psychic energy. Ice starts showing up around the city. The firehouse’s ceiling starts leaking. A young ghost befriends Phoebe. Things, in short, get very weird, and that’s well before returning ‘buster Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) reveals his top-secret lab, which also happens to be filled with ghosts, nerds, and some truly questionable equipment.

Slimer in a trash pile in Columbia Pictures’ GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE.
‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’Courtesy of Sony Pictures

If this sounds like a lot, it is, and yet somehow, it’s also too little. Despite being crammed with characters — the final big battle includes no less than eleven good guys, Kenan can barely keep them all in frame, let alone fighting back — and packed with subplots, little of “Frozen Empire” makes a lick of sense. The bigger questions it routinely approaches, from the mechanics of the evil ancient entity at its heart to how we might deal ghosts who seem like they want to be our friend, are never answered. If you’re enjoying a moment or a beat or a storyline or even a character, they will soon be ripped away in order to service yet another subplot. Carrie Coon is one of the marquee stars of this film — national treasure Carrie Coon! — and one of her longest scenes involves her blithely scrolling on her phone.

Humor is scant, too. Characters make jokes, or at least they read off lines with the cadence of a joke, but little here is actually funny. Instead, it’s the shape of funny, the specter of amusing, a ghostly puff of some merriment. The best bits belong to perpetual standouts and franchise newbies Kumail Nanjiani and Patton Oswalt (as the unwitting owner of that mysterious orb and a whipsmart dead languages wonk, respectively), plus returning original star Dan Aykroyd, who always seems happy to be there, delighted to be back in a world that should be as fun as he nearly makes it through sheer force of will.

The firehouse freezes over in New York City in Columbia Pictures’ GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE.
‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’Courtesy of Sony Pictures

It’s easy to understand the impulse to bring back all the living original Ghostbusters and squeeze as much out of them as possible (perhaps that’s why Aykroyd spends one entirely indoor scene wearing sunglasses for no discernible reason? Maybe that’s what he wanted? Let him have it!). It’s easy to understand the choice to head back to New York City and the firehouse (it’s cool!). We’ll even give in to the decision to bring back that one dude who was mean to the Ghostbusters entire decades before any of this started (William Atherton as Walter Peck, having a good time when he’s allowed to).

It’s much less easy, however, to offer that same level of grace to many of the other options Kenan and Reitman pile on to “Frozen Empire.” An entity that kills through fear? OK! Fine! But that fear is just … icicles? No! Continued concerns about the legal implications of ghost-busting by underage, genius children? Who cares! A character named Podcast? At least he gets a good joke about telling his parents he’s away at space camp! (Truly, where are the other parents in this story?)

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

Most baffling of all is the decision to hang so much of this on an under-baked and quite icky subplot involving Phoebe (said genius child) being taken in by an older ghost (Emily Alyn Lind), who has been dispatched by the icy evil dude in the orb (good God) to essentially prey on the vulnerable youngest Ghostbuster. Lind’s Melody may tell Phoebe she tragically died in a tenement fire, but as this critic’s guest to the “Frozen Empire” press screening (our own Proma Khosla) sagely termed it, she’s “got a face that’s definitely seen the internet” and the Gen-Z vocal fry to match. Salacious undertones aside — Phoebe initially seems to like Melody as a friend, before slipping into odd I’ve-got-a-crush mannerisms that throw the whole thing into a truly nefarious light — it’s yet another subplot in a film bogged down by them, none of it necessary and all the implications bad indeed.

At the end of “Ghostbusters II,” that awful supernatural slime river (and the absolutely deranged 16th-century tyrant and baby-snatcher it helps empower) is defeated by the shared goodwill (and the temporarily animated charm of the Statue of Liberty) of an entire city. It’s a neat little conceit: Good guys win, stories can be somewhat convoluted and still deliver an understandable punch, you can animate the Statue of Liberty if you have a good enough reason. But it’s one “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” can’t effectively ape, let alone with the kind of joy the original films so effortlessly captured. This franchise might not be entirely dead just yet, but its latest resurrection doesn’t make nearly enough good arguments to keep pumping life into it.

Grade: C-

Sony will release “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” in theaters on Friday, March 22.

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