Film Review: Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire needs to unthaw its grip on series nostalgia

Nostalgia undoubtedly has its place within the realms of IP revisitation, but there are certain ways to utilise such a notion without completely falling back on them.  2021’s Afterlife, the 3rd Ghostbusters , chronologically, following 1984’s debut and its 1989 sequel – or the 4th iteration if counting Paul Feig’s much maligned, but vastly underrated female haul from 2016 – definitely leaned into that mentality, but did so with enough heart that it mostly got away with it.

For Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, director Gil Kenan, an Afterlife writer taking over directorial duties from Jason Reitman (who serves as co-writer here), isn’t above leaning on the familiar, but he certainly tries to let this supernatural actioner find its own identity too, with the results being a mixed bag of potential unrealised.

Playing for fans and familiars of the series, Frozen Empire offers little in terms of exposition regarding the previous instalment.  It immediately places us in the heart of New York City, where the Spengler family – mother Callie (Carrie Coon, unfortunately wasted here) and her two teen children, 18-year-old son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and 15-year-old daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) – have moved and now occupy the firehouse that has been repurposed as the headquarters for the Ghostbusters; Paul Rudd‘s loveable Gary Grooberson now trying to navigate his way as a new member of the family, wanting to stay a friend to the children within the realms of his stepfather position.

The ages of the children are made specifically aware throughout, with Trevor’s longing to be considered an adult and Phoebe’s insistence on being treated equally becoming a running theme that attempts to add an emotional weight, but comes up short in an overall film that never quite understands what temperament it’s committing to.  Trevor wanting to be seen as a grown-up is played more for laughs, as when he does ask for any type of help he’s dismissed because, as an adult, he can handle the situation on his own.  For Phoebe, it’s a little more poignant, and the film steps out of its comfort zone the most when handling her specific arc, but it does so in a manner that breaks any of the film’s momentum.

Her subplot revolves around meeting the ghost of Melody (Emily Alyn Lynd), a 16-year-old housefire victim who’s quite taken aback by Phoebe’s lack of being scared in her presence.  There’s a casual sweetness to their blossoming friendship, and the script feels as if it wants to say more regarding the feelings they have for each other, but it never moves their explicitly.  Melody has her own personal reasons for continuing to seek out Phoebe, which play into the plot’s major Macguffin, a haunted orb of sorts that’s attached to the eventual freezing of the city; this aspect, which has been played up quite heavily in the trailers, is actually quite lacklustre in its entirety.

The orb is introduced into the film through Nadeem Razmaadi (Kumail Nanjiani, truly energising the film with his comedic delivery), who wants to make a quick buck off what he wrongfully assumes is just another junk-like ornament-cum-heirloom, and attempts to sell it to Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), one of the original Ghostbusters, who now runs a supernaturally-themed bookstore of sorts.  The orb also happens to cause the containment unit in the firehouse – which stores 40 years of ghostly captures – to overflow, which naturally means that a heft of evil spirits are going to eventually make their way out and wreak havoc on an unsuspecting city; though, in this universe, NYC should probably be prepared for such events by now.

A Ghostbusters film needn’t be so heavy on plot intricacies, and given that the Spengler family (and Gary) are likeable enough – and all embodied by capable performers – Frozen Empire only really needed to place them in a sense of peril, make light of any exposition, and let humour and action set-pieces do the majority of the work.  For a film titled after busting ghosts, there feels like very little of that taking place across Frozen Empire‘s overly long 115 minutes, and, aside from Nanjiani, the occasional Rudd quip, and the sinister mini marshmallow men, much of the humour fails to truly transcend.

The main issue with Frozen Empire is that it isn’t quite sure what personality it wants to adopt.  Nostalgia only takes you so far, and this film really batters that down with the involvement of Walter Peck (William Atherton), who proved a thorn in the original Ghostbusters side in the first film.  The way he’s introduced here is pungent with a “Look who we got back” layering, and it’s certainly a tickle for the fans, but younger audiences who may have only seen Afterlife, or not necessarily taken Peck’s importance on board when their parents showed them the 1984 film, won’t understand why he’s given such framing.

The original Ghostbusters – Ray, Winston (Ernie Hudson) and Peter (Bill Murray), as well as former secretary Janine (Annie Potts) – are utilised in the narrative in a variety of ways that range from useful to more shoehorned, with the overall feeling coming off like audiences won’t accept a story within this universe that doesn’t involve the OGs.  Ray and Winston move the story forward at least, and Peter does get a humorous interaction with the increasingly concerned Nadeem, but much of their story could’ve been remixed to highlight the Spenglers more, and, in doing so, Phoebe’s specific arc could’ve landed with more importance.

There’s sporadic fun to be had across the board, without question, but Frozen Empire doesn’t exactly win its case as to why this series should continue.  I feel as if a Spengler-centric (and Gary, of course) adventure sans the original line-up could be of great benefit to this universe – should there be demand.  This is a group of characters who deserve more than what they’re afforded here, and if Kenan and Reitman opt to thaw their stranglehold on the originals, this new generation of Ghostbusters might be able to form their own personalities in the process.

TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.