‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ clears a low bar

click to enlarge ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ clears a low bar
Jaap Buitendijk/Columbia Pictures/Sony via AP
This image released by Columbia Pictures shows, from left, Celeste O'Connor, Finn Wolfhard, James Acaster, Logan Kim and Dan Aykroyd in a scene from "Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire."

Forty years after “Ghostbusters” and following a string of sequels that never measured up to the 1984 original — beginning all the way back with 1989’s “Ghostbusters II” — it’s fair to wonder, well, who else ought we to call? It may be time to, if not give up the ghost entirely, at least give a flip through the ol’ Rolodex.

But as the lackluster 2021 installment, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” showed, the half life of most film franchises today is an ever-lengthening long tail of diminishing returns. Though the options are many, sucking “Ghostbusters” dry would make a prime exhibit in Hollywood’s nostalgia fix.

Still, it’s not quite as simple as that. I’m glad for the female-led 2016 “Ghostbusters.” Aside from prompting a minor culture war, it assembled the best comic ensemble since the original with Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones and, yes, Chris Hemsworth.

And as easy as it might be to label the new one, “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” another half-hashed retread — which it is, a little bit — it’s also a significant upgrade from “Afterlife,” which relocated the action to Oklahoma and forgot to pack any comedy. “Frozen Empire,” back, thankfully, in New York, is a breezier, more serviceable sequel that has a modest charm as an ’80-tinged family adventure.

The innate appeal of “Ghostbusters” had to do with its brash mixing of genres — adult-edged comedy with sci-fi toys — that summoned the spirit of “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” When the sequels have gone astray, it’s usually because they get bogged down with solemnity or special effects when all they really need is the it’s-the-end-of-the-world-and-I-feel-fine smirk of Bill Murray. I’d forgive bad visual effects a lot sooner than I would bland comic interplay.

“Frozen Empire,” though, is organized less around a group of funny people wearing proton packs than it is around a family. The movie more or less opens with the Ectomobile racing down Fifth Avenue with Gary (Paul Rudd) at the wheel, Callie (Carrie Coon) riding shotgun and her kids — Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) — in the back, all in bickering pursuit of a “sewer dragon” apparition.

The cast is much the same as “Afterlife,” but the behind-the-scenes talent has been rejiggered. After Jason Reitman took over directing from his father, Ivan Reitman, he here is credited as a producer and writer. Gil Kenan, who co-wrote “Afterlife,” directs “Frozen Empire,” which is dedicated to the elder Reitman, who died in 2022.

But if you accept the low-bar aspirations of “Frozen Empire,” you may get a pleasant-enough experience out of it. It’s a movie that feels almost more like a high production-value TV pilot for an appealing sitcom, with Rudd as the stepfather, than it does a big-screen event on par with the original.

Coyle is a film writer and critic for The Associated Press.