‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ Offers a Few Nostalgic Delights but Fumbles on the Rest

When there’s something low in audience attendance, who you gonna call? Another legacy sequel. “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” is the latest, determined effort at proving that this franchise somehow has the chops to keep going. As with the other entries, the curious drive stems from how the very first movie from 1984 was indeed great. None of the sequels match it, but, hey, the motto seems to be you need to keep trying. As far as strained continuations go, this one could have been worse. If you put aside any attachment to the original classic, this one comes close to working as a well-produced popcorn escape. Like its predecessor, 2021’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” there’s a curious tug of war going on between being funny and overly serious.

The story picks up some time after the events of “Afterlife,” shifting from Oklahoma to Manhattan. The Spengler clan is now in charge of the Ghostbusters business, with the addition of Gary (Paul Rudd), the school teacher from the last movie who fell for Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon). They speed around the city in the Ectomobile, zapping away at troublemaking ghosts with siblings Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). One too many pieces of damaged property finally get them in trouble with the mayor, who forbids 15-year-old Phoebe from being an underage Ghostbuster. Bigger trouble is afoot when a guy named Nadeem (Kumail Nanjiani) strolls into the paranormal shop owned by veteran Ghostbuster Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), selling him a metallic orb that contains an ancient, terrifying evil bent on literally freezing the entire city (and we can assume, the world).

“Afterlife” had been a legacy sequel that revisited the “Ghostbusters” premise with a straight face. Jason Reitman seemed to be trying to evoke Steven Spielberg or J.J. Abrams more than his father, original “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman. Gil Kenan takes over, with Reitman co-writing the screenplay, and aims for a breezier touch. He opens “Frozen Empire” with a zanier spirit as the Spenglers chase after a dragon ghost while firing one-liners. There’s funny banter over how Trevor is now 18 and therefore an adult, while the brilliant Phoebe is basically sent to the corner. More fan service drops are thrown around. News segments conveniently use footage from “Ghostbusters” and “Ghostbusters II.” The Spenglers now run the classic fire station from those original movies. Trevor ventures into the attic and bumps into Slimer, the franchise’s trademark pudgy ghost who can’t stop eating. Bill Murray, Akroyd and Ernie Hudson are back once again but we also get a return from Janine Melnitz as Annie Potts. Though, we never find out what happened to Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), who she hooked up with in “Ghostbusters II.”

The fan servicing provides some respite from what amounts to a standard popcorn distraction that never tries hard enough with the main plot, while introducing decent side storylines that are somewhat abandoned. The evil Nadeem accidentally unleashes is one of those ancient gods with ram horns given a rumbling bass voice, capable of simple evil tasks like making the other ghosts in New York City go nuts while blanketing everything else with ice. Nadeem discovers he’s actually the descendent of an ancient line of Fire Masters, who made sure the villain was kept in check for centuries. Kumail Nanjiani is good in the role with perfect comedic timing that’s underused. One feels him slyly poking fun at his stint at Marvel when trying to figure out how to light a candle with his powers or pawning off what he later discovers is vital, ancient armor. We need more of him considering the character captures much of the actual, original “Ghostbusters” spirit, which is rom com meets slapstick with a few absurd spooks. One of the oddities in recent legacy sequels is how they assume fans don’t want the original tone of what they love, but wish something like “Ghostbusters” would become existentialist. “Frozen Empire” even opens with a dramatic title card of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” that belongs in an actual drama. 

A nice story angle that dissipates like a specter involves a teen ghost, Melody (Emily Alyn Lind), who Phoebe meets while playing chess alone in Washington Square Park. What becomes an endearing little friendship, and maybe even attraction, stays pretty static until Melody is inevitably connected somehow to the villain’s grand scheme. We can naturally assume there might be more in yet another sequel. The lineup gets so crammed there’s barely enough room for “Afterlife” alumni Celeste O’Connor and Logan Kim, who conveniently found summer gigs linked to the Ghostbusters, so we don’t wonder why they’re not in Oklahoma. The rest of the movie is on autopilot as a curiously empty New York gets chilled and our heroes quickly huddle to aim their proton packs at the evil god. In the end, Gary finally gets called “dad” by Phoebe, meaning he’s truly been accepted into the Spengler circle as the classic Ray Parker Jr. theme song kicks in. Thankfully, Kenan doesn’t bring back the much-derided CGI ghost of the late Harold Ramis (who played Egon Spengler in “Ghostbusters”) from “Afterlife.” This franchise keeps coming back from the dead and while this entry is slightly better it continues to lack staying power. 

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” releases March 22 in theaters nationwide.