Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire | The emotional story buried under a frozen lake of subplots and nostalgia

ghostbusters frozen empire story
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Reduced to little more than a subplot, Phoebe Spengler’s story is Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’s real emotional core. Too bad it’s buried under all those cameos…

NB: The following contains major spoilers for Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire.

The problem with being overly pandered to is that you soon start to feel like some decadent monarch scowling at a tiresomely enthusiastic jester. Across the 110-ish minute Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, it’s hard to escape the feeling that its makers are doing their damndest to entertain with bright and shiny things at every turn.

Look! Here’s Ernie Hudson, back as Winston Zeddemore! Look! It’s those little Stay Puft guys – aren’t they cute? And look! Here comes Janine! And Ray Stantz! And the spooky librarian! As my esteemed colleague Mr Simon Brew wrote in his review, the latest Ghostbusters desperately wants to please everybody.

If all this sounds a bit salty, especially given Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’s meant to be a fun outing for all the family this Easter holiday, let’s balance things out with a positive: there’s a great story in here, reduced to subplot. Had some of the accoutrements of Ghostbusters past been pared back at least a bit in favour of it, Frozen Empire could have potentially been quite brilliant. That’s because what at first looks like just another plot strand (one of far too many) is actually the beating heart of the whole movie.

Anyone who’s seen Frozen Empire – if you haven’t, then this is your last warning for spoilers – then you’ll probably know what this subplot is already. It’s the one about Phoebe Spengler (McKenna Grace) and her relationship with a ghost, Melody (Emily Alyn Lind). Established early on in Frozen Empire's overstuffed, multi-strand story, it’s returned to repeatedly, with the comedy-adventure bits of the plot cutting away to Phoebe and Melody’s cautious friendship.

Podcast | Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire with director and co-writer Gil Kenan

In acting and writing terms, these are some of the most understated and captivating scenes in the whole film: they’re moments that invite us to lean in and listen rather than pin us back in our seats with in-jokes or flickering visual effects. By now, Phoebe’s a teenager and not a kid, as she was in Ghostbusters: Afterlife; at the same time, it’s established that, at 15, she’s still too young to be a Ghostbuster. Like so many people of her age, she’s between two stools – still not too sure who she is.

When Melody appears to take part in a nocturnal game of chess, Phoebe therefore finds a literal kindred spirit; the script is at pains to tell us that Melody was almost exactly Melody’s age when she died. There’s an immediate spark between the two, and a braver, bolder script would have had the nerve to say out loud what Frozen Empire only hints at: were Melody still a mortal, the two might have fallen in love.

Even separated by death – much like the couple in 1990’s Ghost – it’s still evident, even in Frozen Empire’s telling of the story, that Phoebe regards Melody as more than just a friend. Otherwise, why would she go to the risk of going into the device capable of separating her spirit from her physical body? For the briefest second, it looks as though Melody and ghost-Phoebe might share a kiss.

At any rate, Phoebe quickly learns that she’s been betrayed: Melody has essentially flirty-fished her into leaving her body so her voice can summon the ancient ice god everyone keeps harping on about. It should have been a shocking moment where we get to share in Phoebe’s heartbreak; instead, in a bizarre storytelling decision, Melody’s treachery was already signposted in an earlier scene.

Thereafter, Frozen Empire heads off into its last act, in which we watch what feels like 50 ensemble characters suit up for the final battle against the big, CGI god-villain thing. The Ghostbusters emerge victorious, and the film ends with a neat sentiment about family or something or other. Phoebe and Melody share a final moment before the latter rejoins her family in the sub-atomic afterlife, and the story quickly moves on.

None of this is to say that Ghostbusters: Afterlife had to jettison all of the flight suits, ghost traps or other bits and pieces fans love and remember from the earlier movies. But in its rush to include a bit of absolutely everything – appearances from the 1984 cast, including Slimer, for no particular reason – and try to give all of its characters something to do, the film misplaces its emotional core. From a distance, Frozen Empire looks like an ensemble movie, but it isn’t – it’s a movie about Phoebe and her finding her place in the world. It’s about her experiencing her first crush and her first heartbreak, and learning how to recover from that. It’s a coming-of-age story that has become so over-cluttered by distractions that the central thread was lost.

Was Frozen Empire originally written as Phoebe’s story, with the other stuff added afterwards? Did executives at Sony insist on these changes? Or did its screenwriters simply overlook what was sitting right in front of them? From this position on a windswept isle far outside Hollywood, it’s impossible to know for sure. But right there, buried under layers of frost and references, is the warm centre that could have turned Frozen Empire from a pleasant family outing into something truly memorable.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is in cinemas now.

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