Review: Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire Brings Levity and a Real Villain to Latest Haunted New York Adventure

Certainly better than the deadly serious Ghostbusters: Afterlife, this fifth chapter in the horror-comedy franchise features more of what a Ghostbusters movie should include, such as laughs, action, an actual ghost-driven plot in New York, and emotions that don’t just bum out audiences. If Afterlife was the origin story of a new generation of paranormal experts (with the old crew popping in as a bonus), Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire puts everybody to work and gives us a story that I think most people will prefer.

This time around, the Spengler family have taken up residence in the old Ghostbusters firehouse. Paul Rudd and Carrie Coon are back as parents/parent figures Gary Grooberson and Callie Spengler, with her kids Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). The kids are actually the real stars of the film, with adult figures supplying most of the moral guidance and technical support needed to contain New York’s ever-present ghost problem. The containment unit in the firehouse’s basement, which has been housing captured ghosts since the 1980s, is getting a bit full, and we soon find out that Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore has been working with his company to develop a more advanced paranormal research center complete with higher-capacity containment units. It will take years to transfer ghosts from one storage unit to the other, but that gives the Ghostbusters plenty to do.

However, seemingly every time they go out hunting a ghost on the loose, destruction follows, and the mayor of New York, Walter Peck (the Ghostbusters' old nemesis, played by William Atherton), is ready to shut the team down. Instead, as something of a warning, he tells them that Phoebe can no longer be a Ghostbuster because she’s underage, and the work is too dangerous. For the sake of keeping the ghost-hunting enterprise alive, her elders agree, which sends Phoebe into something of a rebellious spiral that includes befriending a seemingly friendly ghost named Melody (Emily Alyn Lind). The film doesn’t go quite so far as to label Phoebe as gay, but it eventually becomes pretty clear that’s she’s falling in love with this Gothy ghost girl.

Director Gil Kenan (Ghost House), who co-wrote the screenplay with Afterlife director Jason Reitman, ensures the film keeps tabs on Dan Akroyd’s Ray Stantz, Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman, and even Annie Potts’ Janine Melnitz, who actually gets to bust a few ghosts for once. Most of these OG characters are woven into the story a lot more organically than in Afterlife, with the exception of Murray, who is only in a couple of scenes, one of which is funny but very unnecessary. The actual plot centers on the discovery of an ancient artifact that is containing one particular ghost that threatens to unleash an army of ghosts upon New York by casting a death chill over everything, something that happened without explanation about 100 years earlier. 

Probably the best of the new arrivals is Kumail Nanjiani playing Nadeem Razmaadi, who discovers said containment unit in his late grandmother’s apartment along with a few other artifacts he tries to pawn at Stantz’s relic shop. Also on hand are Hubert Wartzki (Patton Oswalt), working in the subbasement of the New York Public Library and having access to all sorts of ancient texts that explain what this object is and how dangerous it would be if it were opened. (There’s also a teenager working with Stanz who goes by the name Podcast (Logan Kim), who I forgot was in the movie until I looked up the cast list for this review.)

Amidst the ghost hunting, potential second Ice Age, and reams of exposition, Phoebe drifts away from the family to spend more time with her new ghost girlfriend and even devises a way for the two to be ghosts at the same time so they can…kiss? But perhaps spending any time in the ghost plane is a mistake with an ancient evil lurking about. Thankfully the ghost of Harold Ramis doesn’t show up this time around, but if he did, I would not have been surprised. This franchise doesn’t know an easter egg or callback it doesn’t take full advantage of.

As mentioned, the laughs come in at fairly regular intervals, the villain is actually somewhat menacing when we do eventually lay eyes upon it, and some of the family stuff is sweet enough to elicit some emotional response. And I give director Kenan full credit for carving out paths through this dense, unnecessarily complicated plot to find a beating heart of this movie, made of the loving family. Both Rudd and Coon are overqualified for their respective roles, but Rudd has a few hilarious moments, and Coon is great at stabilizing the chaos when required (which is often). For those keeping score, the credits scene in Afterlife featuring Sigourney Weaver is in no way paid off in Frozen Empire. The villain here doesn’t feel that dangerous, but is scary enough to get kids’ hearts racing without terrifying their parents. This is a prime example of a film being good enough without coming anywhere near great.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.