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'Ghostbusters: Afterlife' breathes new life into the franchise's '80s fantasy fun

It delivers the goods in the spirit of the classic original by balancing the spooky and the kooky.

“Ghostbusters”is the franchise that refuses to die. Ever since the original came out, there has been an increasing flow of merchandise, from T-shirts to a new proton pack, a series of video games across multiple platforms, a 1997 animated show called “Extreme Ghostbusters” and numerous comic book series. It's clear that fans still craved more, even though the 1989 sequel was not as funny or engaging; probably due, in part, to being informed by the successful, kid-friendly animated series “The Real Ghostbusters” that started in 1986 and excised the adult humor. (Sorry, no more ghost sex.)

Directed by Jason Reitman, the Oscar-nominated director of “Juno” and “Up In The Air” and the son of original “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman (who produced the new one), “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” out Friday, finally delivers the sequel that longtime fans deserve. During a surprise screening at New York Comic Con in early October, the audience was elated by a new tale that also featured cameo appearances by all of the surviving cast members.

It delivers the goods in the spirit of the classic original by balancing the spooky and the kooky, offering distinct new characters, meeting kids and adults halfway on humor, and giving us a younger spin on the concept. In the ’80s, the Ghostbusters (Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson) became nerd icons with an anti-establishment bent. Nerd culture is now ubiquitous, but the Ghostbusters’ outsider status remains in this small town story as, in the film, it shows that their old exploits have been mocked by many.

The original Ghostbusters.Columbia Pictures

The setup for “Afterlife” is simple. Mired in debt, Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon), the estranged daughter of Ghostbusters team member Egon Spengler (the late Harold Ramis), moves her teenage son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and younger daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) to rural Oklahoma. Callie has inherited her father’s creaky old house, and awkward nerd Phoebe becomes fascinated with her grandfather’s paranormal adventures after discovering his old Ghostbusters gear.

Meanwhile, Trevor uncovers the clunky Ghostbusters car Ecto-1 and tunes it up. A nearby mountain with an abandoned mine houses supernatural secrets and sinister spectres that generate regular tremors and threaten their rural town in the way that Manhattan was in the earlier movies. Soon, the young Spenglers, joined by their new friends Podcast (Logan Kim) and Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), get caught up in trying to stop an ancient evil from overtaking the world. And in true ’80s kids fantasy movie fashion, most of the adults don’t believe them.

While the trailers have made “Afterlife” look eerie, there’s still plenty of the trademark humor that fueled the original’s success. Phoebe drops dry, nerdy jokes, the loquacious Podcast constantly documents everything in his own goofy manner, and Paul Rudd’s summer school teacher, who befriends her, serves up self-deprecating wit. In one scene, as unexcited as his generally slow students about being in class, he distracts them with ’80s VHS movies that include Stephen King’s heartwarming tale of a rabid dog named Cujo.

It was a shrewd move for Reitman and co-screenwriter Gil Kenan to extract the supernatural scenarios from an urban locale — an off-beat idea in the 1980s — and place them into an American Gothic setting. Like its predecessors, the polarizing 2016 reboot was also set in Manhattan, so it was time for a change.

Reitman and Kenan also allowed the franchise to breathe new life by wisely focusing on a younger cast (Phoebe being the lead hero here) rather than bringing back the original Ghostbusters for a full-length adventure. There are plenty of nods to all the old characters, villains and jokes, but placing the story in a small town that feels out of time allows “Afterlife” to retain an ’80s sense of wonder and mirth that will connect with older fans even as newer ones are drawn in. It also offers an emotional family storyline.

Indeed, apropos of its name, “Afterlife” succeeds because it knows how to pass the torch to Gen Z Ghostbusters. Reitman takes material that his father worked with and imbues it with his own style. He plays off of elements from the original movies, the latter of which was darker and more serious while updating the zany humor that made the original so endearing. It’s fresh and rehash combined, with the most classic moment involving the hilarious shenanigans of tiny Stay Puft Marshmallow Men — relatives of the behemoth that stomped through Manhattan at the climax of the original — coming to life in a Walmart, a chain that only made it to the Big Apple in the 2000s.

Reitman, Kenan and the cast put in all the right touchstones, including two stingers in the credits — one of which hints at a sequel and both of which will tug at older fans’ heartstrings. While “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” isn't pushing major boundaries for the franchise, it finds the right balance of ’80s grandeur and humor with a distinctly ’20s flavor. It's a welcome return to a beloved if inconsistent franchise that understands what made the original so fun.