Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire Review: The Spirit of Gen X Haunts Youthful Sequel

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire shows signs of life for the flagging franchise, at least whenever the old guys step aside.

Ghosbuters: Frozen Empire
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk/Sony Pictures

Phoebe Spengler knows who she is and what she wants and she doesn’t care what any of the dumb grown-ups think. Despite banishment from all Ghostbusting activities by her mother Callie, and also by the mayor of New York City, Phoebe decides to deal with a spirit sighting in a diner. She grabs her proton pack and marches her 15-year-old self to the scene of the haunting, brimming with teenage angst.

To anyone old enough to have watched the first Ghostbusters when it became a phenomenon in 1984, Phoebe might seem like an entitled brat, a spoiled Gen Z kid who approaches the supernatural not with wonder or wry humor, but with a temper tantrum. But for those who watch Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a proper film with its own character arcs and story beats, then Phoebe’s act of defiance offers the first suggestion that Ghostbusters might mean something in the year 2024.

After the tired elegy that was Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Frozen Empire puts the new characters in the spotlight… mostly. Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and her 18-year-old brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) relocate from Oklahoma to New York with their mother Callie (Carrie Coon), daughter of founding Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (the late, and blessedly not CGI-recreated for this movie, Harold Ramis), and her science teacher turned mom’s boyfriend Gary (Paul Rudd). Thanks to an endowment from Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), whose devotion to steady paychecks has made him extremely wealthy, the Spenglers now live and work full-time in the firehouse, driving the Ecto-1 around town while having family squabbles.

While the move back to New York seems arbitrary, the Frozen Empire script by returning Afterlife writers Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman, the former of whom steps in for the latter to direct this entry, gives the familiar setting a lived in feel as the Oklahoma Spenglers make it their own.

Ad – content continues below

An early tracking shot follows Callie as she carries a laundry basket from the upstairs bedrooms of the firehouse, past the main offices and to the basement, where she stops at a washing machine across from the containment unit. Even if the shot didn’t coincide with Callie and Gary talking through the latter’s position in the family, the scene completely domesticates the Ghostbuster’s world. It’s hard to believe this is the same place that a bachelor dreamed of phantasmic fellatio.

And yet, these moments of domestic discontent and teenage rebellion are when Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire work best. A subplot involving lonely Phoebe forming a bond with a similarly misunderstood ghost girl (Emily Alyn Lind) might make the grown-ups roll their eyes, but it will captivate the Stranger Things fans in the audience. The always-magnificent Coon can’t help but play her frustrations with Gary’s undefined relationship to her two kids with genuine pathos, a weighty concept absent from the original two Ghostbusters movies but right at home with a teen melodrama.

At times, this focus on Spengler family blends well with the new roles for the original team. Winston works as a distant benefactor who introduces the family to his secret, even more high-tech research team. Even better, Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz makes for a great grandfatherly figure, a fount of knowledge, excitement, and advice for the rebellious young Phoebe. While fellow returners Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) and Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) don’t do much beyond toss out a couple one-liners, they don’t derail the story.

The same cannot be said for the other winks toward the original. Older audiences may cheer to see a very tired Walter Peck (William Atherton) bully his old nemeses as the new mayor, but his character is Frozen Empire‘s sole acknowledgment to NYC infrastructure. Worse, a visit to the New York Public Library not only results in a lifeless scene involving one of the lions coming to life, an idea cut from Aykroyd’s original massive Ghostbusters script from the ’80s, but also an arbitrary appearance from the librarian ghost.

By themselves, the nods to the original films don’t add up to much one way or another. But together, they become annoying, pulling attention away from what could be a solid YA adventure about Phoebe and her family who don’t understand her. Kenan and Reitman further undermine their best idea by filling the script with too many characters and asides.

After several false-starts, Frozen Empire settles into its main plot with the arrival of an ancient being called Garraka, who can hypnotize other spirits and also has ice powers and also fights against an ancient sect of fire benders. To battle this new threat, the Ghostbusters get help from Winston’s research division, headed by Englishman Pinfield (comedian James Acaster) and fellow Oklahoma transplant Lucky Domingo (Celeste O’Connor). They also consult a giddy occult expert played by Patton Oswalt and Kumail Nanjiani as the slacker scion of an ancient people.

Ad – content continues below

The overstuffed script threatens to suffocate any of the main character arcs, leaving only Phoebe’s intact. But it wisely makes room for some whiz-bang action sequences. Frozen Empire opens with a flashy sequence of the new Ghostbusters chasing a cool dragon ghost through the streets of New York City, throwing all manner of nifty gadgets at it. And while Garraka may look dumb on paper, Kenan uses a stuttering effect and lens flares on his glowing eyes to make him genuinely menacing, especially for the ideal teen audience.

The result is a movie that’s best when it’s not your father’s Ghostbusters. The teen melodrama and kids’ adventure story may not be what everyone wants from the franchise, but it’s the only approach that doesn’t feel like Sony throwing a corpse on screen. But even in its best moments, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire doesn’t shake its debts to the past, filling the screen with too many old ghosts that don’t get scares or laughs anymore.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire hits theaters on March 22.


3 out of 5