new movies March Ghostbusters Frozen Empire

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is an exercise in empty nostalgia bait and Bill Murray phones it in

3 out of 5 stars

While still dear to me, the ectoplasmic ooze has congealed and frozen over the once sparkling Ghostbusters franchise. Despite its flaws, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire provides enough nostalgic jolts and supernatural comedic escapism to moderately maintain the dying brand — maybe for one final film to complete this trilogy. Director Gil Kenan clearly has affection for this iconic universe, meticulously recreating the famed firehouse HQ with giddy detail. And, at a breezy 1h 55m runtime, the film’s fast pacing and likable cast ensure a somewhat engaging, laugh-punctuated experience that flies by. 

In contrast to Ghostbusters: Afterlife‘s small-town setting exploring family legacy, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire returns to the vibrant urban insanity of New York City, capturing that kinetic energy reminiscent of the 1984 original. The humour embraces a zany, irreverent absurdism lacking in Afterlife‘s more nostalgic, sentimental approach. This tonal departure highlights the franchise’s ability to cater to different generational palates, appealing both to misty-eyed grownups and zoomers craving provocative anarchy.

Mckenna Grace shines as the plucky, neurodivergent, overachieving 15-year-old brainiac gender-bending Phoebe, anchoring the scrappy, iconoclastic new ghostbusting crew. Composed of their family — mother Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon), ex-science teacher/stepfather Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), plus her punkish ghost pal Melody (Emily Alyn Lind) and friends Lucky Domingo (Celeste O’Connor) and Podcast (Logan Kim), the returning cast really shines. 

Visually, the film certainly doesn’t slouch, providing a wide kaleidoscopic array of ghostly money shots to nurture that nostalgic sweet tooth. Shimmering CGI spectres undulate through cityscapes, and gravity-defying set pieces unleash full-tilt havoc in somewhat predictable but entertaining bursts. Always afraid of going too deep, this empty calorie feast also accentuates the regurgitated narrative’s lack of true sustenance. The central “world in peril” story arc is so convoluted and nonsensical, you’ll crave the refreshing straightforwardness of the murderous Gozerian demigod from the original.

Finn Wolfhard, Celeste O’Connor, Paul Rudd, Kumail Nanjiani, Logan Kim and Carrie Coon

Worse, the film lazily falls back on that most tired of blockbuster clichés: the dreaded CGI sky beam casting ominous shafts of light toward a muddy, uncanny and generic CGI monster threat. This is an unimaginative choice, especially egregious given that both the 1984 and 1989 Ghostbusters films featured ingenious practical effects and in-camera magic mixed with (then) cutting-edge digital technology. What was once revolutionary here devolves into the same tedious computer-generated spectacle tropes littering studio blockbusters for decades.

The current franchise pillars like Rudd (chowing down on quirky one-liners as the surrogate Peter Venkman) and a deadpan Coon desperately try to breathe life into their scenes. On the other hand, Bill Murray’s brief cameo injects his signature tired irreverence and charm. But he phones it in, coasting on his reputation and falling far short of the comedic brilliance that once helped to define the franchise’s origins. Meanwhile, Kumail Nanjiani’s portrayal of Nadeem (a reluctant Fire Master) adds a spark of much-needed humour, even if his character feels shoehorned in where the new Ghostbusters’ and the world’s own lore could have empowered them — with fire and brass, against the big bad icy CGI demon, instead of his whole storyline and backstory.

Lars Pinfield (James Acaster) contributes little beyond one-note sneering. Dan Aykroyd as Ray Stantz, Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore, Annie Potts as Janine Melnitz and Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman’s OG Ghostbusters callbacks delight only through fanservice nostalgia hits over expository dialogue and one-liner callbacks. The approach was effective, though, as the audience around me seemed enraptured by that barrage of nostalgic paranormal mayhem. They genuinely cheered at every Slimer antic or any time the original cast reunited on screen until the end when they screamed in unison, “To the Golden Years,” as they once again helped to save the day by collectively joining their forces to push a lever. Their appearances amounted to little more than overcooked expository offloads regurgitating the franchise’s iconic one-liners rather than serving any meaningful narrative purpose or emotional stakes beyond pure “memberberry-baiting” fanservice.

Ghostbusters Frozen Empire review
Annie Potts, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd

A core problem with the film is that Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire still feels confusingly muddled over its core audience. Who is it for? Is this for nostalgic Millennials like me, longing to reminisce about our childhoods? Or for younger zoomers craving cutting-edge gender identity themes and provocative irreverence? Much of the approach seems to suggest it’s for families, but with its indecisive mixture of childish pandering and adult raunchy humour (sex dungeon jokes, much?!), the movie occasionally strikes an awkward and even alienating note. Just commit to something and stick with it.

The friendly punky ghost Melody (Emily Alyn Lind) hints at an intriguing implied queer romantic arc with Phoebe. However, this almost subversive thread falls through, remaining purposefully buried under the torrent of exposition and nostalgic callback humour. It was so blatant that committing to a teen queer storyline terrified the studio committee. The risk of being labelled as “woke” and being cancelled by some more conservative-triggered fans (remember the backlash against the 2016 all-female Paul Feig installment of Ghostbusters?) means that they fail to commit to the idea. They had the potential to add some character to the film, almost channelling Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore’s affair in Ghost, but instead, any romance is left implied. 

Despite its confused pandering, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire does inject welcome jolts of sociopolitical commentary absent from previous installments. When our heroes dismantle an oppressive bureaucratic hierarchy led by Dr. Wartzki (Patton Oswalt), there’s a defiant anti-establishment spirit reminiscent of the original USSR-baiting subtext. Could these flourishes signal an intriguing evolution for the franchise’s thematic ambitions?

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire overall satiated my personal craving through its steady stream of comforting nostalgic callbacks, easter eggs and unexpected laughs. I left entertained if also frustrated over its multitude of made-by-committee confusing missteps. For all its glow, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire remains merely a limited upgrade of its quickly forgotten 2021 predecessor, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, keeping the franchise on life support when maybe it should have just stayed in its marshmallow-coated grave. It’s possible they keep improving until they find the right footing, target audience and tone — turning this mediocre sequel-reboot franchise into something great one day. It’s not as implausible as Rick Moranis reprising his iconic role as Louis Tully in the next sequel, “streams crossed” (never cross the streams!). ■

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (directed by Gil Kenan)

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is now playing in Montreal theatres.

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