‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ made by and for fans, both old and new

By Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 3/27/24

As was the case with 2021's "Ghostbusters: Afterlife," I can't help but register the divergence in reactions to "Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire."

As with the previous film, many reviewers can't …

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‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ made by and for fans, both old and new


As was the case with 2021's "Ghostbusters: Afterlife," I can't help but register the divergence in reactions to "Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire."

As with the previous film, many reviewers can't seem to stand it, whereas audience reaction scores have been overwhelmingly positive.

Make no mistake, "Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire" is not a film whose screenplay will be studied by future film nerds for how well-constructed it is, in the way that the original "Ghostbusters" and 1985's "Back to the Future" are now.

But what's ironic is that, as with "Afterlife," a number of reviewers seem to loathe "Frozen Empire" for focusing on the sort of emotional and relationship dynamics that those same critics claim are all too absent from the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I've read more than one review criticizing "Frozen Empire" (just as "Afterlife" was criticized) for appealing to the same generation of now-adult children who grew up with the Ghostbusters as a commercial and pop culture phenomenon during the 1980s and '90s.

What's funny is, those folks are not wrong, but that's precisely why I enjoy "Frozen Empire."

According to cast member Kumail Nanjiani, the filmmakers were inspired by "The Real Ghostbusters" animated series that ran from 1986 to 1991, to the point that they "wanted to make a long episode of the animated series."

Nanjiani is four years younger than me, so we're both members of the Generation X cohort for whom that cartoon is a cherished memory.

Yes, "Frozen Empire" includes the obligatory would-be world-ending Big Bad, but like so many episodes of "The Real Ghostbusters," it spends as much time showing us the team doing the job on a day-to-day basis, like a comedic supernatural procedural in the vein of a "Law & Order" spinoff.

And what a team it is, since we've retained not only Egon Spengler's surviving relatives, but also the friends they gained in the fictional small town of Summerville, Oklahoma, in "Afterlife," even as "Frozen Empire" moves the film series' action back to New York City.

It's not spoiling anything to reveal that Egon's teammates all return (yet again), but what's special is how they're employed by the narrative, as former receptionist Janine Melnitz finally follows in the footsteps of her cartoon counterpart by becoming a full-fledged Ghostbuster herself, while Winston Zeddemore, so often unfairly dismissed as merely being "the Black Ghostbuster," effectively steps up as the team's leader.

Ray Stantz has likewise remained as delightfully nerdy as ever, only this time serving as an attentive mentor to an enthusiastic new generation of nerdlings, from advising Egon's autistic granddaughter Phoebe, to taking on Phoebe's friend "Podcast" as his summer apprentice at the Stantz occult bookshop.

At one point, Ray, Phoebe and Podcast consult with an equally dorky folklorist at the New York Public Library, who's fittingly played by notorious science fiction and fantasy aficionado Patton Oswalt (another Gen-Xer who's undoubtedly familiar with "The Real Ghostbusters" cartoon), and I was struck by how much "Frozen Empire" celebrates the act of unabashedly gushing over weird and obscure esoterica.

Unlike films such as 2012's "21 Jump Street," which have asserted that nerds are "cool" now, "Frozen Empire" makes the case that being a nerd, and geeking out over stuff, is just plain FUN.

Between this and the introduction of a secondary headquarters for the team, where we see a new group of scientists studying the ghosts that our field team has captured, I couldn't help but also think of 1997's "Extreme Ghostbusters" animated series, in which Egon trained a new quartet of college students to carry on the work.

Worth noting is the care with which this film depicts the unlikely partnership between Ray and Winston, who wound up spending more time together than with any of their other teammates in the first two "Ghostbusters" films.

Dan Aykroyd's heart has always been deeply invested in this franchise, since he comes from an extended family line of real-life spiritual investigators, and Ernie Hudson has always been such a deft supporting player, that they make Ray and Winston's peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich friendship feel real.

It's both uplifting and heartbreaking when Winston warns that Ray is getting too old to continue risking his life by chasing sinister specters, because he should be enjoying his "golden years," and Ray tells Winston that he can't imagine wanting to do anything else with his golden years.

I feel like I'm burying the lede by waiting until now to praise the performance of Mckenna Grace as Phoebe Spengler, because while I already declared my admiration for the character while reviewing "Afterlife," the passage of time has given her an additional emotional dimension in "Frozen Empire," thanks to her surprising new relationship.

I've already seen debates online about whether Phoebe's feelings for her new "friend" are strictly platonic, or possibly something more, but I'd welcome it if her character was able to make yet another group of overlooked young women feel seen, just as her actress has said that autistic girls have already told her that they've found empathetic representation in Phoebe.

I also appreciate this film for weaponizing the considerable charisma of Paul Rudd to portray Gary Grooberson, the slacker scientist who's dating Phoebe's mom Callie, as an unexpectedly wholesome role model for non-toxic masculinity, because as much as Gary loves Callie, he also genuinely wants to be a supportive adoptive father to Phoebe, whom he adores for being a brilliant misfit.

On a final note, fans of the first two "Die Hard" films should welcome the comeback, and eventual satisfying comeuppance, of the Ghostbusters' most viscerally unpleasant adversary (and no, it's not a third film appearance by Gozer the Gozerian).