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‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ Review: A Bigger, Rowdier and (Slightly) Funnier Fan-Service Grab Bag Than ‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’

There is more energized ghostbusting going on in the opening scene of “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” than there was in all of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” The new team — science wiz Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), now 15; her older brother, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard); their testy “We’re doing this? Okay, whatever!” mom, Callie (Carrie Coon); and Gary the seismologist (Paul Rudd), who is now Callie’s significant other, though he’s working hard to earn his place as a stepfather figure — are racing down Fifth Avenue in the refurbished Ectomobile, blasting their proton guns at a long thin slithery beast that pops out of the sewer and skitters through the air. (What kind of creature is it? It’s the species known as eye candy.) The scene is mostly brainless action, yet it has a family-that-busts-together-stays-together zap.

Yes, thank Gozer, the franchise is back in New York City, where Phoebe and her fam have moved into the refurbished Hook and Ladder 8 firehouse from the original “Ghostbusters.” It’s full of equipment like a Containment Unit, into which a great deal of paranormal entities have been stuffed. “This building is the finger in the dam,” says Ernie Hudson’s Winston, making it clear that the premise of the first film — the world is at stake! — has been revived, along with the weapons, suits, cheesy practical effects, and a wisp of corporate counterculture ‘tude.

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“Ghostbusters,” released 40 years ago this summer, was a hash of ectoplasmic silliness, gizmo gadgetry, pulsating light-show apocalypse, and Bill Murray’s nattering meta commentary on it all, which added up to a comedy whose theme, very much of the Reagan ’80s, was: The world may be about to end, but it could hardly matter less. You’d think it might matter even less in “Frozen Empire,” yet somehow the “Ghostbusters” films have evolved into (mostly) straight-faced paranormal adventures, with just enough screen time from the original actors — Dan Aykroyd has a meaty role here, and gives it a little soul — to root the nostalgia.

“Frozen Empire” includes token appearances by our blobby old green ghost friends, who have a way of regurgitating into people’s faces, plus occasional comic relief from the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man army, which the series is trying to turn into the new Minions. Mostly, though, “Frozen Empire” dishes up a collection of occult artifacts and otherworldly forces that are treated as seriously as they would be in, say, an “Indiana Jones” movie.

There’s the Orb of Garraka, an ancient metal sphere comprised of glyph letters that sometimes fall apart, like the tops of old typewriter keys, releasing assorted spirits. There’s a very human-looking ghost, played by the winsome blonde Emily Alyn Lind, who connects with Phoebe during a nighttime chess game in Washington Square Park. For a while, the two look like they’re on their way to becoming friends (or maybe more), until it’s revealed that the ghost has another agenda. And there is Garraka himself, a 20-foot-tall emaciated ash-gray devil-mummy spirit with elongated ram horns, who has the power to kill almost anything by freezing it to death. So powerful is his ice magic that it freezes even the voltage squiggles from the proton packs, and turns Manhattan into a deathly ice palace.

Did I mention that the “Ghostbusters” series has mostly put the jokes in cold storage?

Three years ago, Jason Reitman rebooted his dad’s franchise, and the result was a movie for anyone who thought that the most entertaining part of the original “Ghostbusters” was…the science! Not Bill Murray’s tossed-off absurdist japes, not the Godzilla-size Stay Puft Marshallow Man, but all the tech-geek jibber-jabber. “Afterlife” repositioned the “Ghostbusters” brand as actual nerd sci-fi. “Science is reckless,” said Phoebe. “Totally!” replied Gary. “It’s punk rock! It’s a safety pin through the nipple of academia!” The movie was so enthralled by its fake science that Jason Reitman seemed to have all but forgotten that the original “Ghostbusters” became a classic because it was, you know, funny.

And yet the strategy “worked,” at least at the box office. Conceived as the world’s most generic ’80s absent-father Spielberg movie, “Afterlife” was like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” if the aliens had never shown up, crossed with a stilted version of “The Goonies,” all given the wonder-years patina of “Stranger Things.” But the conversion of the “Ghostbusters” franchise into a balsa-wood gimcrack kiddie product, jam-packed with Easter eggs and backstory (all the gobbledygook about Gozer and the gatekeeper and the keymaster and the beliefs of the Samaritans), added up to nothing so much as a spinoff trivia game, a movie that was more fan service than movie.

The fans, however (including a new generation of them), were fine with it. They seemed to be saying, “As long as our heroes get to put on those khaki pest-control Ghostbusters suits and shoot rainbow lightning out of their Ghostbusters proton packs, and as long as it all ends with Ray Parker Jr. singing the ‘Ghostbusters’ theme…we’re good!”

You might say that “Frozen Empire” has to work even harder to invent a reason for itself to exist. Yet it’s a livelier movie than “Afterlife.” It was directed by Gil Kenan, the co-writer of “Afterlife” (he and Reitman share screenplay credit this time as well), and Kenan keeps the wide-eyed hollow scavenger hunt of a plot moving, whether he’s bringing one of those stone lions in front of the New York Public Library to aggressive life or coaxing an irresistibly avid performance out of Patton Oswalt as a library scholar who actually makes the Orb sound worth all the excitement.

And there’s one actor here who’s allowed to bring the funny. Kumail Nanjiani plays Nadeem, a slacker who tries to make $50 by selling his late grandmother’s artifacts in Ray Stantz’s shop, only to learn that he’s woven into their magic; he’s actually…the Firemaster. Nanjiani is so nonchalant about this that he becomes the movie’s spark plug, and in doing so I think he points the way toward where this franchise should go. “Ghostbusters II” was a mild and flavorless sequel. The 2016 reboot, while unfairly bashed for its gender flip, was too polite — it lacked the postmodern center of gravity provided, in the original film, by Murray’s malarkey. “Afterlife,” to me, just sat there. “Frozen Empire” has enough going on in it to connect, but now that Jason Reitman and company have brought this series back to life, it’s time to re-infuse it with the spirit that Kumail Nanjiani brings. In a “Ghostbusters” film, the laughter should be more than just a ghost of itself.

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