Producers: Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman and Jason Blumenfeld   Director: Gil Kenan   Screenplay: Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman   Cast: Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, Kumail Nanjiani, Patton Oswalt, Celeste O’Connor, Logan Kim, James Acaster, Emily Alyn Lind, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, William Atherton, John Rothman, Stephen Whitfield and Annie Potts   Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures

Grade: C-

The latest in the forty-year old “Ghostbusters” franchise opens with the Columbia Pictures logo celebrating the company’s hundredth anniversary.  In retrospect it’s an appropriate foreshadowing, since the movie that follows, while exhaustingly energetic, feels a century old.  Crammed with characters familiar and new, overstuffed with clunky CGI and hysterical action but distressingly short of laughs, “Frozen Empire” is less cool than moldy.

The screenplay by producer Jason Reitman and director Gil Kenan transplants many of the lead characters from Reitman’s previous entry in the franchise, “Afterlife” (2021), from Oklahoma, where the “Ghostbusters” meets “Stranger Things” mash-up was set, to New York City, where the Spengler family—Callie (Carrie Coon), daughter of deceased Ghostbuster Egon (Harold Ramis), and her children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), along with their erstwhile science teacher Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) have taken over the famous firehouse from the original 1984 movie and assumed Big Apple Ghostbuster duties.  Their devil-may-care methods in taking down a huge, slithering sewer demon infuriate Mayor Peck (William Atherton), who also threatens legal action if they don’t sideline Phoebe, who at fifteen is still a minor.  She doesn’t take it well.

Meanwhile Podcast (Logan Kim), Phoebe’s boyfriend, has joined up with Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), the elder statesman of the original group, who’s now become a collector of artifacts with supernatural attributes and hosts a show where folks bring items he might be interested in.  And Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), whom Trevor’s infatuated with, is working the technical side with Lars (James Acaster), the scientific wiz whose experiments are funded by Ray’s old comrade-in-arms Winston (Ernie Hudson).  Winston’s still seconded by sarcastic Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts).  Eventually even Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) will show up as well.

His reappearance is tied to an apocalyptic new threat posed by a mysterious ancient orb, covered with cryptic symbols, brought to Ray’s shop by goofy hustler Nadeem (Kumail Nanjiani), who’s selling off the collection of his decreased grandmother.  It turns out that, as Dr. Wartzki (Patton Oswalt), an expert at the New York Library, explains, the thing is a prison holding an ancient demonic figure called Garraka (a large puppet voiced by Ian Whyte), which has the power to freeze everything and everyone within its reach and can be released via an incantation.  Getting the proper words chanted involves a dour ghost, Melody (Emily Alyn Lind), who appears to the disconsolate Phoebe in the park for a game of nighttime chess.

To make an overlong story short, Garraka escapes confinement and rains chilly terror on the city, intending to release all the ghosts kept in cold storage, as it were, by the Ghostbusters, while the current crop of Ghostbusters and newbie Nadeem, revealed as the most recent in a long line of so-called Firemasters who act as a bulwark against the freezing touch of Garraka, do all they can to foil the creature.  There’s lots of frantic action (like the excruciatingly prolonged pursuit of the sewer ghost that opens the movie), but precious few funny lines or situations; this is definitely an action comedy with the accent on the former.

“Frozen Empire” pays constant homage to previous installments in the series (though the 2016 female-centered reboot is completely ignored), not only through the reappearance of the stars of the 1984 original (with a restrained Aykroyd getting the lion’s share of attention—he even has to confront a NYC Library stone lion brought to life), and those of the 2021 sequel, but via a seemingly endless stream of references to those pictures, like the army of mini-sized Stay Puft Marshmallow Men the producers are apparently hoping will serve as models for a line of kiddie toys, or the totally extraneous subplot in which Trevor confronts insatiable Slimer in the firehouse attic (apart from a product placement for Cheetos, the entire episode is pure filler).  Those are but the tip of the iceberg in terms of the blatant fan service going on here.

None of the cast really distinguish themselves, except perhaps for Nanjiani, who takes on the Bill Murray duty here with his deadpan muttering; someone has to, as Murray’s appearance is pretty much a pro-forma phone-in, in the final reel involving nothing more than a series of dazed expressions.  But it’s Rudd and Coon who get the worst of it; she’s given little to do but look frazzled, and he’s reduced to hapless mugging and dialogue that’s subpar even by Ant-Man standards; Grace is apparently meant to be sympathetic, but comes across instead as irritating, especially since Phoebe turns out to be, despite her vaunted precociousness, a rather selfish, silly twit.  The rest are just boring to varying degrees, though it’s nice to see Potts and Atherton again, and they try, without much luck, to give some spark to their lackluster roles.

Technically the movie okay for what it is—an attempt to replicate the cheesiness of the earlier installments in the series.  By current standards the effects are mediocre, but presumably that’s part of the nostalgia trip intended by the makers.  Within that context, the production design (Eve Stewart), costumes (Alexis Forte and Ruth Myers) and cinematography (Eric Steelberg) do their job, but the editing of Nathan Orloff and Shane Reid is hardly what one would call crisp, and Dario Marianelli’s score is generic bombast.

The movie begins, incidentally, with a prologue set in 1904, when a platoon of firemen led by an intrepid captain (Stephen Whitfield) breaks into a room where a society of paranormal investigators have all been frozen to death; according to Wartzki’s later exposition, they had chanted the incantation to the orb and had, apparently, released Garraka.  A question: why didn’t the demonic creature continue its rampage then, rather than presumably retreating into the orb to be resurrected a hundred and twenty years later?  One can speculate that a prequel set in the early twentieth century with a different cast of period Ghostbusters would have made a far more interesting—not to mention more amusing (and logical)—picture than this grab-bag of tired franchise tropes.  Of course, it would have required a lot more imagination on the part of the filmmakers, a commodity that, on the evidence presented in “Frozen Empire,” they sorely lack.