Film

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire review – a heartfelt and 'nostalgia-tickling' sequel

The latest in the franchise has found the sweet spot – it looks as crude yet charming as it did four decades ago

Ernie Hudson and Bill Murray in Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

Image: Jaap Buitendijk / SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT

Talk about a spooky coincidence. Everything seems to have lined up perfectly for the 40th anniversary of Ghostbusters. After some thematic detours in recent films – including an all-female outing in 2016 and a Spengler family trip into the wilds of Oklahoma in 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife – the new fifth film brings it all back home to New York and the familiar Ghostbusters firehouse HQ.

Despite its rather uninspiring title, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire features the nostalgia-tickling sights of a classic-looking Ecto-1 weaving through Big Apple traffic with its siren blaring plus spuddy green spectre Slimer splattering ectoplasm everywhere.

It also leans hard into the current trend for ‘legacy’ sequels that avoid hard reboots in favour of acknowledging the beloved films and actors that have come before. This is the National Trust approach to movie franchise management, keen to display as many heritage features as they can afford while quietly making plans for long-term sustainability.

The four main Ghostbusters stars have already cameoed in the last two films in various permutations (the 2016 instalment took the innovative approach of having the actors come back, just as different characters; Afterlife depicted the late Harold Ramis as an actual ghost).

But in Frozen Empire there are sizeable roles for Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), while Bill Murray’s sardonic Venkman pops up to drop a quip or two in key scenes. There is also the return of withering receptionist Janine (Annie Potts) and uptight environmental protection agency officer Walter Peck (William Atherton).

Ahead of release, this cavalcade of casting announcements seemed excessive. Afterlife had already introduced a likeable new core cast of second-generation Spenglers in the form of stressed mum Carrie Coon and a pair of wiseass teens played by Finn Wolfhard and Mckenna Grace. Combining the new generation and the old – plus bringing back Afterlife sidekicks Paul Rudd, Celeste O’Connor and Logan Kim – suggested Frozen Empire was going to be overstuffed.

That sort of old-and-new combined cast list can look quite exciting on paper. But recent legacy sequels like Jurassic Park: Dominion and Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker have been unsatisfying fumbles, where the demands of servicing a doubled-up ensemble seem to work against the story. 

Full confession: I was limbering up to throw the same sort of legacy sequel shade at Frozen Empire. Too many characters, too many callbacks, and why is James Acaster in this exactly? (He’s pretty good, actually, as a fusspot English science guy overseeing an upgraded ghost containment grid

But the new film is one of the better examples of how to do a sequel to a much-beloved classic four decades after the fact. There is still the problem of divvying up screen time. Despite being the top-billed star, Rudd has barely more than a few good lines to deliver, many of which are in the trailer. 

But as an evocation of the original movie where an apocalyptic supernatural entity threatens NYC – in this case, a vengeful ice god who has spent 120 years in ghost jail – it has found the sweet spot. The film tips its hand early by redeploying the same title card treatment with the animated ghost materialising in the ‘O’ of Ghostbusters. It looks as crude yet charming as it did four decades ago.

Under the auspices of writer-director Gil Kenan, who also made the excellent 2006 animated horror-comedy Monster House, the visual and sound effects in Frozen Empire are state-of-the-art but consciously designed to hark back to techniques used in 1984, from stop-motion animation to the crackling optical effects of a proton pack stream. Crucially, these effects rarely seem too slick or soulless. 

It helps that the two major new cast additions – Kumail Nanjiani as a slacker wheeler-dealer and Patton Oswalt as an agitated folklore expert – feel like they could slot right in to the original. It all adds up to a heartfelt tribute while never getting as sentimental as Afterlife.

The big question is: what happens next? After the tepid reaction to Dominion, the Jurassic Park franchise is course-correcting with a new instalment and a fresh cast ambitiously pencilled in for next summer. After Frozen Empire, might the custodians of the Ghostbusters brand be tempted to wipe the slate clean too? They would do well to remember that busting ghosts is the easy part. The real trick is keeping the spirit alive.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is in cinemas from 22 March. Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic.

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