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‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ Review: A Play for Nostalgia and Merch

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If it seems that the only movie Big Hollywood knows how to make is the one they made last year — and the year before that — there’s a reason. The industry’s franchise fever is real, though much depends on timing. My colleague Kyle Buchanan once determined that while successful sequels tend to be rolled out every few years, those that wait six years are often doomed to fail. That may be welcome news for the latest “Ghostbusters,” a cautious, painlessly watchable kid-centric romp that is opening precisely five years, four months and four days after the previous installment went splat.

“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” was directed by Jason Reitman, whose father, Ivan Reitman, directed the first two movies in the 1980s, and was in line to take on the third. Over many years and after many more studio notes, a new director, Paul Feig, was brought in, and the third movie became a female-driven reboot. Before it even opened, the reboot became the target of viciously sexist and racist trolling and rage, a casualty of the culture wars. But much like the troublesome apparitions that haunt this series, profitable franchises (and even barely profitable ones) rarely truly die in Hollywood. And “Ghostbusters” is simply too goofy, too smart about dumb fun and too potentially lucrative to stay buried for long.

And so: “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” which is as cuddly and toothless as you would expect from a relaunched studio property in which the main characters are children and Paul Rudd plays a love interest. They’re all predictably adorable and have big, easy-to-read eyes, the better to widen in feigned surprise or mock fear when various ghosts come a-calling. For their part, the cartoonish apparitions range from the cutesy to the PG-13 snarly and include a roly-poly metal muncher, a pair of slathering hellhounds and some puffy, gurgling creatures whose wide-open arms and demonically cheerful smiles have been engineered for toy shelves and maximum nostalgia.

There’s a story, sure, though you don’t care and neither do I. What matters are the jokes, energy, boos and characters, who are appealing mostly because the performers playing them are too. The main kids are a brother, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things”), and his younger brainiac sister, Phoebe (the very good Mckenna Grace). With their mom (the reliable Carrie Coon), they move to a desolate farm in the middle of Oklahoma (played by Alberta, Canada), near one of those small, non-depressed towns straight out of classical Hollywood. There, the kids pick up two charming second bananas (Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor), crack jokes, battle demons, solve mysteries.

Jason Reitman makes easy-watching, frictionless mainstream comedies and dramas for adults (“Up in the Air,” “The Front Runner”) that deliver their laughs softly and their sanctimony seriously. Like his father, he is sentimental, but his father’s comedies are brasher, more down market and high concept: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito are “Twins,” etc. The Reitmans have split the duties on “Afterlife,” with Ivan serving as the producer and Jason sharing script credit with Gil Kenan. Whatever influence the father had on the son, one of the nicer things about this joint venture is that, while the adults in the story tell the young’uns what to do, the emphasis remains on the action, not the life lessons.

Franchise sequels bank on dependability and giving the audience exactly what it expects. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” certainly makes good on that contractual promise: There are ghosts, and they are busted. By design, there isn’t a single genuine surprise in the movie. Instead, the movie leans heavily into the previous installments in an effort to create the kind of self-generating franchise mythology that can support further sequels (and so on). It trots out the familiar gadgets, ghosts and goo as well as beloved faces and Ray Parker Jr.’s indestructible earworm of a theme song. Like the younger Reitman, Phoebe and her Scooby Gang battle ghosts on every front.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Rated PG-13 for ghostly peril. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. In theaters.

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