Yet while many of the same characters who made those jokes appear in Frozen Empire, more so than even 2021’s Amblin-adjacent Afterlife, Frozen Empire has drifted entirely toward being a kids’ movie. In fact, the only major character arc in the film is carried by the newest films’ best addition, adolescent Phoebe Spengler (Mckenna Grace), and her first love’s crushing on a ghost (Emily Alyn Lind). Meanwhile much of the other charm that exists comes from the dysfunctional family dynamic between Phoebe and her parents (Carrie Coon and Paul Rudd), although other young characters like those played by Finn Wolfhard and Logan Kim are less well-served by an overstuffed screenplay. Even so, the film feels like it’s operating more on their wavelength than, say, Bill Murray who shows up and disappears for two and a half scenes.

As a consequence, by the time the credits roll on Frozen Empire the idea of what Ghostbusters is appears to have shifted entirely from the 1984 comedy hit sold as a slightly naughty, VFX-heavy laugher featuring former SNL stars to, well, the Saturday morning cartoon that children of the ‘80s grew up with afterward. Frozen Empire director Gil Kenan has not hidden in the press the influence that The Real Ghostbusters cartoon series had on the new movie, and the friendliest reading of the film is it plays exactly like a cartoon, complete with a Casper-esque subplot adjusted for 21st century sensibilities. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but if Sony wants to keep the franchise going past Frozen Empire, the new film’s reception might be a clarifying moment to fully commit a pivot toward that.

For better or worse, audience interest has stalled. The film’s limited but loyal fanbase remains the Gen-Xers and elder millennials who grew up with Ghostbusters movies and cartoons, and the children of today who are showing up for a kids adventure movie (often with parents who watched the original film and cartoon show). Indeed, EnTelligence audience tracking reported that 56 percent of the new installment’s audience was under the age of 35 and more than 54 percent of the opening weekend attendees were catching Saturday and Sunday matinees—primetime for families.

In this way, the new film’s disjointed efforts to focus just as much on the kid busters as the Boomers who will not let the proton pack go—more your Dan Aykroyds than Bill Murrays—hints at how the franchise is divided between serving two masters. There also seems to be remnants of Sony’s perplexing insistence that Ghostbusters could be a massive multi-franchised IP similar to Marvel or DC Comics. At least that was this writer’s reading of a shoehorned subplot involving a new Ghostbusters R&D lab which seemed largely divorced from the rest of the movie and only added more tertiary characters.

And yet, it would seem whichever direction Sony goes—be it another SNL alumni star vehicle, a la the 2016 redo, or the current iteration of kids claiming their parents’ toys as their own—there is a ceiling the brand can no longer get through. It’s obviously no longer 1984, and the only audience where the series seems to be growing is with the extremely young.

All of which is to say the series seems to be at a crossroads. Should Sony wish to continue the brand—and Frozen Empire’s longer term performance in the weeks to come may be the ultimate determinant of that—there are a few directions they could go. The studio could obviously continue the story of the next generation of Spenglers fighting ghosts; they could continue to attempt to expand the Ghostbusters brand as a shared universe with the long-threatened spinoffs; or they could attempt another reboot.

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