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Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire Review: Just Stay Dead

Four characters of Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire stand wearing red uniforms ready to catch ghosts

With thinly spread plot and characters, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is a nostalgia-choked highlight reel that’s for the fans and for the fans only.

After the screening for Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, I saw large group exiting the theater in ghostbusters outfits. Turns out they weren’t cosplayers, but the charity organizations Ghostbusters Virginia and the Chesapeake Ghostbusters. They seemed to have had a very jolly time and stayed for a while posing for photos. It was quite heartwarming to see. It was also unfortunately the most positive thing about this entire screening experience.

Directed by Gil Kenan, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is the 4th film in the Ghostbusters original series. It follows Phoebe Spengler (Mckenna Grace), who has taken up the mantle of the Ghostbusters in New York along with the rest of her family. Unfortunately, it turns out busting ghosts isn’t the most highly regarded or easy job out there, as she faces new troubles such as collateral damage, teenage rebelliousness, a disgruntled mayor, and an ancient evil ice demon that threatens to destroy the entire world.

Before I start with Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, I need to lay down some ground rules, so to speak. Firstly, I believe nostalgia should never be an excuse for poor actual quality. A movie can have a location, character, or line that reminds you of some nostalgic property, but that rush of dopamine doesn’t suddenly fix thin character writing or bad craftsmanship. That’s not to say a nostalgic film can’t be good, but when the nostalgia feels more like a crutch and a shield against criticism, that’s where I draw the line.

Secondly, I already didn’t have a particularly fond opinion of the previous entry, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a sequel released 32 years after the 80s duology. It was clearly meant to please the fans with an authentic Ghostbusters experience, but it devolved into a cesspool of nostalgic callbacks towards its third act. It’s been four years since then. Things have changed. I have changed. We’ve gotten even more legacy and revival sequels aiming to reboot, remake, or reanimate long-gone franchises. And I have gotten slowly but surely older, tired, and most of all sick of all those attempts.

The reason for this very long-winded intro is so that everyone is clear that I don’t harbor any ill will towards the actors or director when I say that Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire was the most depressing theater experience I’ve had in a very long time. It’s not just the movie itself, even though it was still very shoddily made. But it just happened to come at the worst time possible after a long, long trend of nostalgic sequels.

The cast of Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire sit in a classroom in a scene from the movie
Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (Jaap Buitendijk © 2023 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

If you are a Ghostbusters fan, then go watch Frozen Empire: it will most likely still satisfy you. There are plenty of callbacks, moments of silly comedy with the ghosts, and some of the old cast return, like Venkman (Bill Murray), Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Zeddermore (Ernie Hudson). They get a few moments and lines to shine, and the film is not disrespectful of any of them.

But if you are not a Ghostbusters fan, you will find very little of actual substance here. It’s not 100% terrible; as a children’s comedy film, it has a beginning, middle and end, an emotional lesson to go off of, and some cute moments with ghosts. But beyond just the bare minimum requirements for a story, everything else is just ethereal.

There is one thing that is genuinely excruciating here, and it’s this film’s constant attempts at being funny. It doesn’t work. Maybe there were a couple lines that got a chuckle out of me, but other times, it’s characters acting like scared idiots, or people overreacting during a serious moment, or just plain old quipping nonstop like the manifestation of MCU humor memes.

And it actually is a pretty relevant issue, because with nearly everyone trying and failing miserably to get a guffaw, most of the cast end up coming across as annoying rather than endearing. I don’t hate this cast of new characters, or at least I didn’t. But about an hour into the film, every time someone opened their mouth, I wanted to press the skip button because I was scared they’d make another misfired joke. This, in turn, means I am having a harder than normal time getting invested into the characters. Which is especially bad when, even in a vacuum, they are so shallow.

Not to mention the cast has gotten too large for its own good. Callie (Carrie Coon), Gary (Paul Rudd), Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) are from the Afterlife – Frozen Empire duo, and then there’s newcomer Nadeem (Kumail Nanjiani). But the film also brings back the cast from the old Ghostbusters (1984), which makes for a main cast consisting of over ten characters. With the film playing just under two hours, it is no wonder no one feels fully fleshed out or has even a semblance of an arc. Many of them just don’t feel like they do anything of import, period.

Of course, there is one character that Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire puts a little more spotlight on, and that is Phoebe. Her deal, this time, is that she feels like being a ghostbuster is her true calling, and yet the fact that she’s only fifteen is holding her back in many ways. That’s actually not a bad arc to focus on, and I was hoping it would work.

Unfortunately, this is where the huge cast of characters and short runtime come back to haunt us, because there’s not enough time dedicated to fleshing out that arc. Avoiding spoilers as much as possible, there is a moment where Phoebe, in her teen frustration, makes a pretty crucial mistake that causes a lot of collateral damage. She mopes for about two minutes that it’s her fault, but then, after that, we don’t come back to this again, in any capacity. You’d think that maybe this would be a good way for her to learn responsibility along with her calling, but that arc just collapses like Stay Puft on a hot summer day.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire Trailer (Sony Pictures)

The main villain is also criminally uninteresting, looking like a rejected concept from a Diablo game, and the final fight against it, despite its supposed world-ending proportions, feels more apt for an amusement park play than anything else. And to add ectoplasmic slime on top of this decaying sundae, the visuals are a complete eyesore. At least in the previous movie, there were some makeup or practical models being used. Here, almost everything is distractingly CG to the point of looking like a bad Luigi’s Mansion port.

But all of these issues are not why I said Ghosbusters: Frozen Empire was such a depressing experience. This may be a bit cynical, but after Ghostbusters: Afterlife and this film, these movies are feeling more like Ghostbusters theme park rides than actual stories, as they prioritize paying homage to the original’s legacy and nothing else. I can see no other explanation for why it has multiple ghost encounters that feel more like detours than anything else, or why there are Mini Stay Pufts appearing for mini skits that I am sure are purely there to build atmosphere and won’t be commercially exploited with merchandise in any way, shape, or form. If we get an eventual sequel to Frozen Empire, would it finally attempt at being a solid story first and foremost? Think about that and you may understand my reaction.

I am always open to a film being good on its own merits. But this film didn’t seem to want to play to any of its own merits. Instead, what it gave me was the equivalent of a Happy Meal toy set, meant to appeal to fans’ nostalgia and nothing else. My depressing experience with Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire came partly from what trend this film is part of, not just the film itself. And maybe giving this low a rating for that reason is unfair. But after this lazy revival sequel trend persisting for so long, a line has to be drawn somewhere. If I saw this a year or two ago, this may have been 2 and a half stars. As it is, this is a clear sign that studios need to wake up.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire will be released globally in theaters on March 22, 2024.

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