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Movie Review: “GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE” has the soul and (evil) spirit to succeed

Friday, March 22, 2024 | Reviews


Starring Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon and McKenna Grace
Directed by Gil Kenan
Written by Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman

The rebooted GHOSTBUSTERS franchise began heading in a somewhat more serious direction with its initial entry, 2021’s AFTERLIFE, but the new FROZEN EMPIRE is the first in the entire film series to open with a quotation from a Robert Frost poem. It then proceeds into a setpiece that takes place in 1904 Manhattan, when the members of an adventurers’ club are discovered to have met unpleasant fates, complete with a great horrific sight gag.

From there, we’re dropped back into familiar territory: the pursuit of an errant spirit through the streets of the present-day Big Apple by the Ecto-1 as its occupants crack wise and banter with each other. This sequence, one of the best in GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE, delivers brisk, well-staged action while establishing the lightly combative family dynamic between the Spengler family–mom Callie (Carrie Coon) and teenagers Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), and all-but-official dad Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). It also demonstrates that Phoebe’s got the stuff when it comes to ghostbusting, though the fact that she’s only 15 is used against the Spenglers when they’re called on the carpet for the damage they’ve caused by bureaucrat turned mayor Walter Peck (William Atherton).

In other words, everything old is new again in GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE, which calls back to the original in ways big and small while telling a story that’s in some ways more specific to this new band of ’Busters. Encoring from AFTERLIFE, writers Gil Kenan (who also directed) and Jason Reitman (who helmed the previous film) cast a wide net of both nostalgia and an updated, more straight-faced approach to some of the material, particularly where its central threat is concerned. That would be Garraka, an ancient horned demon who, if unleashed, would spell icy doom for New York City and, presumably, the entire world. He cuts an impressive, imposing figure, and is a memorable addition to the GHOSTBUSTERS bestiary.

For most of the FROZEN EMPIRE, though, Garraka is trapped within his self-named Orb, an artifact brought to Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), who’s now dealing in antiques and checking them out for paranormal infusion, by Nadeem (Kumail Nanjiani), who has inherited it from his grandmother. Determining its exact nature involves visits to a paranormal research center overseen by the super-wealthy Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) and the bowels of the New York Public Library, where eccentric researcher Dr. Hubert Wartzki (Patton Oswalt) dwells. Podcast (Logan Kim) and Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), the teen Spenglers’ pals from Summerville, Oklahoma, are working at Ray’s place and the research center respectively, and Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) is back helping out at the downtown firehouse where the Spenglers live and have their headquarters, and…

And that’s a lot of characters for one movie to handle, and in trying to fit them all in–along with a return of original MVP Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray–FROZEN EMPIRE occasionally loses track of them and its own storyline. It works best on a moment-by-moment basis, as Kenan handles the big action well and also shows a knack for infusing chase scenes with offbeat humor, as when a mischievous ghost takes on an unlikely form while attempting to escape through the library. Also unexpected: Aykroyd has some of the best moments here not via Ray’s patented know-it-all exposition, but melancholy moments in which he addresses his legacy and the passage of time, including a nice exchange with Hudson’s Winston. He gives the proceedings a bit of heart you don’t see coming.

The deepest feeling in the movie, however, comes from Grace as Phoebe. Never mind her billing; as in AFTERLIFE, Grace is the real star of FROZEN EMPIRE and has the best subplot/arc. Banned from going out on missions with the rest of her family, and questioning her place in life, Phoebe connects with lost-soul spirit Melody (Emily Alyn Lind, from DOCTOR SLEEP and the BABYSITTER duo), and their interactions give the movie an emotional anchor in the midst of all the spectacle and narrative chaos. By contrast, Trevor’s side story sees him playing cat and mouse with the hungry Slimer, who seems to be set up to take on another, perhaps more fearsome or funny form late in the film, though it doesn’t follow through.

Throughout, the visual effects are well-wrought and well-deployed for both thrills and humor, and Dario Marianelli’s music captures the sense-of-awe-and-wonder tones of the fantasy films of the ’80s. It’s supplemented with a number of cues from Elmer Bernstein’s original GHOSTBUSTERS score, among the many shout-outs to the previous films employed here; there’s even another reference to Jason’s dad Ivan’s early film CANNIBAL GIRLS, just like in AFTERLIFE. When Venkman eventually joins the battle against Garraka, his perfectly pitched attitude is so welcome you wish he had even more of a part in the story; picking up some of that comedic slack are Nanjiani, who gets some solid laughs as Nadeem discovers his destiny, and Oswalt, who gives Dr. Wartzki an irrepressible spirit of his own. With these new characters and a fresh, ferocious villain, FROZEN EMPIRE is an improvement on AFTERLIFE, and if there’s a third film in this saga, one can hope it will build on this entry’s positives and streamline out some of the fan service.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).