Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

Josh Reviews Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is a sequel to Ghostbusters: Afterlife.  Two years after the events of Afterlife, the Spengler clan — kids Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), mom Callie (Carrie Coon) and her boyfriend Gary (Paul Rudd) — have settled into their lives as Ghostbusters.  They’re living in the old firehouse and busting ghosts, assisted by O.G. Ghostbusters Ray (Dan Aykroyd) and Winston (Ernie Hudson).  Things seem to be going well, until they get busted by Mayor Walter Peck (William Atherton, reprising his role from the original film) for all the property damage they’ve been causing, not to mention putting an under-age kid (Phoebe) in jeopardy.  At the same time, a guy Nadeem (Kumail Nanjiani), emptying our his dead grandmother’s apartment, finds a weird spherical object and sells it to Ray, little knowing that the sphere is the prison of an ancient evil that, of course, is soon to get loose and wreak havoc on New York City.

While there’s a lot to enjoy in Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, I fundamentally don’t understand the choice they’ve made in Afterlife and again here to tell a Ghostbusters story and leave out the jokes.  Afterlife felt like a warm-hearted Amblin film, combining family drama with fantastical elements.  Frozen Empire feels like a superhero movie sequel.  It’s a fun action adventure with some banter and a few laugh moments and lots of big CGI spectacle as a villain threatens the city.  Now, I like superhero movies just fine!  But it’s not the tone I’m looking for in a Ghostbusters film!!  The original two Ghostbusters films were COMEDIES first and foremost.  Every scene in the original Ghostbusters is funny.  The magic of the original Ghostbusters is the way they married a hysterically-funny comedy (that’s basically a “snobs vs slobs” film, a classic comedy formula) with an exciting fantasy adventure.  I am mystified that the makers of these modern Ghostbusters have decided not to make these new films comedies.  Frozen Empire is funnier than Afterlife… but it’s still not that funny a film, and while it’s packed with terrific comedic actors — all of the original gang, plus Paul Rudd, Kumail Nanjiani, Patton Oswalt, and more — in general those actors are called upon to play things mostly straight.  I don’t get it.

It’s a particular shame because I like the basic story structure of Frozen Empire.  Whereas Afterlife was basically a remix of the most famous elements from the original film (once again the villains were Gozer, the Terror Dogs, etc.), I’m happy that with Frozen Empire they’ve decided to create an original story, with a new villain with an all-new mythology.  I’m also happy to see new characters added to the mix, including Kumail Nanjiani’s Nadeem, the librarian played by Patton Oswalt, and the ghost Melody played by Emily Alyn Lind .

In Afterlife, all of the surviving Ghostbusters appeared in cameo roles.  It’s fun to see Ray and Winston given more substantial roles here.  I like seeing Ray as an enthusiastic advisor and supporter of the new gang; that’s a good use of the character.  (Though Ray is shockingly slow to do anything about the danger of the mysterious sphere, even after it literally blows apart his PKE meter.)  Even better was the great use of Winston, suggesting that not only had he become a successful businessman, but that all the while he’d been continuing to support the Ghostbusters financially and technologically, bankrolling improvements to their ghost-busting and ghost-imprisoning tech.  It’s nice to see Winston be treated so well, as an intelligent, loyal, and successful guy.  That made me very happy.

That was another aspect of Frozen Empire that I enjoyed, that there was some time spent exploring and expanding the mythology of Ghostbusting.  I liked seeing that Winston was working on better ways to deal with the world’s ghost problem.  I enjoyed the scenes exploring why some spirits move on while others are trapped on our plane as ghosts.  I was also at first fascinated by the scenes in which Phoebe befriends Melody, a ghost of a dead teenaged girl.  I was excited by the idea that maybe a character might be pushed to question what the Ghostbusters have been doing all these years.  If all ghosts aren’t bad, is it wrong for the Ghostbusters to be trapping and imprisoning them forever in their containment system?  (That’s a cool question to ask.  Sadly, the film’s third act avoided actually wrestling with those issues, which was a bummer to me.)

But if this film is going to be a fantasy-adventure, instead of a comedy, then I think the storytelling needed to be tighter, and the characters better fleshed out.  (As I was watching this film, and noting all sorts of plot problems, I wondered if I was judging this film unduly harshly.  I’d never complained about the ridiculousness of the gang using slime to bring the Statue of Liberty to life in Ghostbusters II, had I?  That doesn’t actually make any sort of plot sense, and is arguably more ridiculous than anything found in this film.  But I’ve always been willing to forgive it, both because it works emotionally as a cool sequence, and because that film is primarily a comedy so I’m willing to go with the flow more than I would in a film that plays things more straight.)

Shall we dig in a little further?  Beware SPOILERS ahead!

The main new gang from Afterlife — the Spengler clan plus Gary Grooberson — are all played by terrific actors, and they’re all fun to watch on screen.  I wish the film dug more deeply into their characters.  There’s something of a story of Phoebe feeling left out when she’s grounded by the mayor for being underage.  (Though isn’t Trevor also only 17?  There’s a specific joke in the first film that he told Lucky he was 17 but in fact he’s only 15, and they say this film is set two years later…). And there are a few scenes about Gary’s trying to figure out how to be a dad-figure to Phoebe and Trevor, even though he’s not their biological dad.  Those are all interesting ideas, but there’s not actually much to those story-threads.  Carrie Coon is always fun to watch, but her character has little to do in the film.  Frankly, neither does Trevor.  The subplot of his trying to catch Slimer, who has been hiding out in the firehouse attic, doesn’t amount to much.  (How is it that Slimer didn’t wind up helping out when Garraka attacks the firehouse in the finale?)

At first, as I noted above, I really enjoyed the story of Phoebe’s friendship with the ghost Melody.  But I didn’t like how it played out in the second half.  I was disturbed by Phoebe’s sort-of suicide attempt (in which she allows her body to briefly die so her spirit can interact with Melody), which felt totally out of place to me in this otherwise family-oriented film.  When they reveal that Melody is working with the villain Garraka, it’s a nice twist, but then Melody drops out of the middle of the movie for a long while, which deflates the tension.  It would have been better had she only been revealed to be in league with Garraka when he attacks in the third act.  Similarly, while I enjoyed the random mid-movie scene of Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) testing whether there’s anything supernatural going on with Nadeem, his arrival at the firehouse for the finale would have been more satisfying had his walking through the door been the first time we’d seen him in the film.  That previous mid-movie Venkman-Nadeem scene also made me ask lots of questions the movie seem to want to bother to deal with: Is Venkman is working full-time with Winston’s Ghostbusters gang?  If so, why we don’t see more of him?  (Obviously because they only had Bill Murray for a handful of scenes.)  Where is Dana Barrett?  (After Sigourney Weaver popped up at the end of Afterlife, I was hoping we’d see more of her in the sequel; sadly, she does not appear in this film.)

I liked seeing Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) again, back from Afterlife, and I like the idea that she’s been working for Winston.  But I wish she had more to do in the film.  I’m not sure why they dropped the idea from Afterlife that there was a burgeoning romance between the Trevor and Lucky.  We also meet another young Ghostbuster-in-training working for Winston.  Checking the internet, I see this character was named Lars Pinfield, played by James Acaster.  Mr. Acaster is fine, but he doesn’t have much to do in the film, and I’m not sure why this character is in the movie.  Everything he did could have been done by Lucky, it seems to me.  I do like the idea that, with Egon dead, there are other young scientists who actually are working on the tech behind the Ghostbusting (though this guy Lars bumbles holding onto Garraka’s spherical prison, so that wasn’t so impressive).  When we first saw this young white guy, I thought for sure he was Oscar, Dana Barrett’s son from Ghostbusters II, all grown up!  I wish that had been the case!!  That would have made me more interested in this character.  Also back from Afterlife was Logan Kim as Podcast.  Wow, he’d grown up a lot!!  I loved this kid in Afterlife, and it was fun to see him again, though again, I wish he had more to do in the film.  (It’d have been nice if he and Phoebe had more to do together, but because most of Phoebe’s scenes wound up being with Melody, that didn’t happen.)

Of the new cast-members, Kumail Nanjiani makes the best impression as Nadeem.  Of all the talented comedic actors in the film, somehow only Mr. Nanjiani managed to be consistently funny!!  Mr. Nanjiani always managed to insert some funny business into every one of his scenes.  As always, he was great and stole the show.  I loved seeing Patton Oswalt in the film, and the idea of him as a kooky but knowledgeable librarian was a good idea… but I wish they’d let him be funnier.  (And again, as I poke some holes in the film’s narrative structure, I have to ask: why didn’t they just have Ray be the one giving our younger characters the exposition on who this bad guy Garraka was??  Wouldn’t that have been simpler story-wise, while also being a way to make Ray more central to the film’s story?)

I wish the film’s third act was more exciting.  I wanted to get more of a sense that the whole city was in jeopardy, and that the end-of-the-world peril was really building.  (The original Ghostbusters did that so well!!)  I also wish they’d found a way to allow all of the characters to contribute in some way to defeating the villain.  Think of how cool it was in the various Avengers movie in which each superhero used their powers in a specific way that was helpful and important!  The coming-together of the old and new Ghostbusters should have been momentous, but here they all get frozen and the only ones who actually do anything to beat the bad guy are Phoebe and Nadeem.  Bummer!

Other thoughts:

  • I liked the flashback to seeing the firehouse in 1904.  It threatened to veer into the type of thing I hate in prequels — in which something minor is given too much portentous importance — remember, the whole point of the firehouse in the first film was that it was a dump.  But that flashback worked and made me smile.
  • I didn’t ever need to see Walter Peck again.  I can understand the desire to bring him back, but if they were going to do so, I wish he’d either been a more serious threat to the gang, or it might have been interesting had they reversed expectations and made him an ally somehow.  As-is, he’s sort of toothless here.
  • For the most part, I was happy this film avoided all the references to the original Ghostbusters that were packed into Afterlife.  But the idea of having one of the iconic lion statues in front of the New York Public Library — so iconically a part of the opening of the original film — come to life was cool.  I wish that moment had felt more important in the film.
  • I liked seeing Annie Potts back as Janine.  She’s always a pleasure to see on-screen.  As with so many of the other characters, I wish she had more to do.

This film was written by Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan, who wrote Afterlife.  Whereas Afterlife was directed by Mr. Reitman, this film was directed by Mr. Kenan.  He does a solid job.  The film looks good, and it moves along at a fine pace.

Overall the film’s visual effects and creature/ghost design is strong, albeit unremarkable.  There are a lot of fantastical effects in the film and they all looked good to me.  The sequence of the ice wreaking havoc on a beach — that was in all the trailers — was cool.  It might have been nice had they gotten a little crazier with the ghost/monster designs, but I wasn’t really expecting that.  This film feels right down the barrel of the visual look I’d expected.  I liked the red jackets the new Ghostbusters gang wore in a few scenes…  I’d have liked to have seen more of that sort of gentle visual expansion upon the familiar (and iconic) Ghostbusters designs.

Had there been lots of funny jokes added to this basic story structure, I think this film would have been great!  As it is, I thought it was a fine film, perfectly enjoyable, but not terribly memorable.  I guess that’s OK, but I hold the original Ghostbusters in such high regard that I want much more from these modern sequels.

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