In a directorial father-son baton pass from Ivan Reitman to Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”), “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is undeniably nostalgic and fairly sweet, while who-ya-gonna-calling directly back to the 1984 original. And yet with its focus on teenage heirs to that legacy, the movie simultaneously feels as much like the Disney Channel version of “Ghostbusters” as a long-delayed sequel.
Happily, the kids are the very talented Mckenna Grace (“Gifted,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and “Stranger Things’” Finn Wolfhard, the grandchildren of Egon Spengler (originally played by the late Harold Ramis). Egon has died, leaving a remote farmhouse to his estranged daughter (Carrie Coon), who for financial reasons finds the move timely.
Moving into the place, Phoebe (Grace) and Trevor (Wolfhard) discover a lot of strange stuff happening around town – starting with all those unexplained earthquakes – and some nifty artifacts among grandpa’s possesses. Phoebe possesses scientific acumen far beyond her years, while her brother mostly just crushes on one of his new classmates (Celeste O’Connor).
Mom, meanwhile, strikes up a somewhat unexpected relationship with one of the kids’ teachers (Paul Rudd, seemingly everywhere at once), adding to an adult component that produces some laughs but frankly rides in the passenger seat for much of the movie. (Coon is a gifted actress, but there’s a bit of the “E.T.” mom syndrome here, where she can’t see all the weirdness happening her.)
Cleverly, the film (written by Jason Reitman, Dan Aykroyd and Gil Kenan) does set up a dense mythology connecting this flurry of spectral shenanigans back to the 1980s, while playfully incorporating visual touches that recall the “Ghostbusters” of the past. There are also funny unrelated gags, such as Rudd’s character getting through summer school by simply running wildly inappropriate horror movies.
In some respects, “Afterlife” represents a rather conspicuous exercise in fan service, after the bizarre temper tantrum thrown by some in response to the female version of the concept that premiered five years ago. While that movie was flawed, the reaction seemed completely out of whack, elevating “Ghostbusters” to an overblown level of “You ruined my childhood!” exaltation.
The elder Reitman serves as a producer on the movie, which – with Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson promoting the movie – isn’t the only link to its Reagan-era roots. Still, this is one of those films that doesn’t so much cross the streams as dip into a deep well of goodwill, hoping to bridge the gap between those who actually saw the original in a theater and kids and grandkids who will hopefully identify with the youthful protagonists.
At its best “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” simply delivers a good time, combining the upgraded special effects with comedy and youthful angst, while taking a little too long to get to the good stuff.
Broken down into those components, the younger Reitman has dutifully answered the call to carry on his family legacy, without quite conjuring the kind of sparks that would have made “Afterlife” completely rise to the occasion.
“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” premieres Nov. 19 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.