Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (PG-13) ★★

Review Date: March 22nd, 2024

After 40 years and four movies, Ghostbusters is starting to feel as long-in-the-tooth as the returning members of the main cast. Although there are those who thought any considerations of continuing the principal timeline (as opposed to the one spun off by Paul Feig in 2016) should have been ended with the 2014 death of Harold Ramis, I found the 2021 sequel, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, to be a fitting - albeit belated - conclusion to the series, providing an effective blend of fan service, rejuvenation, and closure. Alas, the film did a little too well at the box office for things to be left well enough alone, so we're faced with Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, an installment that does no service to the Ghostbusters name. As scattershot and uneven as it is unnecessary, it fails to effectively build on the foundation laid in Afterlife while at the same time relegating the "old timers" into oddly-integrated super-cameo appearances.

Of the characters first introduced in Afterlife, most are back but only one - McKenna Grace's Phoebe - is given more than token development. Paul Rudd's Gary Grooberson and Carrie Coon's Callie have a fair amount of screen time but their characters are stuck in neutral. They go nowhere. At least Rudd gets in a few good one-liners. The other newcomers from the 2021 movie - Finn Wolfhard's Trevor, Celeste O'Connor's Lucky, and Logan Kim's Podcast - fare worse. Bill Murray (Dr. Peter Venkmen), Dan Aykroyd (Dr. Raymond Stantz), Ernie Hudson (Dr. Winston Zeddemore), and Annie Potts (Janine Melnitz) make token appearances but seem primarily on hand for their nostalgia value. William Atherton's loathsome Walter Peck, not seen since 1984's original (although the actor filled a similarly obnoxious role in Die Hard and its first sequel), has returned to hound the Ghostbusters, this time as New York's mayor. There are a few new faces, all of whom feel underused owing to the preponderance of characters with too little to do: Kumail Nanjiani as Nadeem Razmaadi, the "Fire Lord," Patton Oswalt as a guy stuck doing research in an underground library, and Emily Alyn Lind as the chess-playing ghost Melody.

Putting aside the guilty pleasure of enjoying the limited banter among the surviving original Ghostbusters, there's not a lot to appreciate about this long-winded story that feels more like a superhero film than something set in the Ghostbusters universe. In fact, the efforts of the godlike villain to bring about a frozen apocalypse (and the Ghostbusters' attempts to thwart him) represent the least exciting aspect of the production. And, although there's still humor to be found in the screenplay (credited to director Gil Kenan and original Ghostbusters co-creator Ivan Reitman's son, Jason), it lacks the fun campiness that made the 1984 movie such a joy.

Frozen Empire opens two years after Afterlife, allowing in-movie time to track that of real life. The new Ghostbusters have moved into the firehouse that headquartered the original Ghostbusters, all of whom are now retired from the Ghostbusting business. The new quartet is reduced to a threesome when 15-year old Phoebe is put on the sidelines by the Mayor after she violates child labor laws. Without much to do, Phoebe ends up playing chess with a ghostly apparition named Melody. The two develop a friendship, which includes a little flirting (although the movie appears unwilling to take things to the seemingly logical next step), but Melody has an ulterior motive. Meanwhile, the emeritus Ghostbusters are still hanging around the periphery, ready to return to duty should circumstances require it.

Long periods of Frozen Empire drag. It takes forever for the story to take root and, once it's underway, it's underwhelming. The writers - both with strong Ghostbusters pedigrees - do their best to honor what came before (especially in the 1980s), but can't get it right. This feels more like an overlong episode of a streaming TV spin-off than a legitimate continuation of the motion picture franchise. Some of the character moments work better than the predictable battle against the villain, who seems like he's moonlighting from either the DCU or the MCU.

It's rare that a movie franchise reaches its fourth installment without showing major degradation and it appears that Ghostbusters is no exception. Continuing to churn out sequels simply because a recognizable brand hasn't been bled dry is a bad business model and it results in limp, uninspired material like this. Die-hard Ghostbusters fans may reluctantly give this a pass because of its nods to the past but there's little here to propel the series forward or give a reason to believe that a fifth movie is desired or warranted.

© 2024 James Berardinelli