The Ghostbusters franchise returns to our screens with this sequel-slash-reboot that tries to have it both ways, targeting both a younger audience and die-hard fans of the original movie. As such it has plenty of charm, but it takes the fan service a step too far. Matthew Turner ain't afraid of no ghost.

This new supernatural adventure is the second sequel-slash-reboot of the Ghostbusters franchise in five years, following the critical and commercial disappointment of 2016's all-female version. This time round, the franchise returns to its roots: it's directed by Jason Reitman (son of original director Ivan Reitman, who takes a producing role here), features several members of the original cast and includes more callbacks and references than you would have thought possible. But is it any good? Well, yes and no.

After a short prologue, the plot centres on nerdy 12 year-old science whizz Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), who moves to small town Summerville, Oklahoma with her mum, Callie (Carrie Coon) and her 15 year-old brother Trevor (Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard), after their estranged grandfather dies and leaves them his house. Phoebe quickly discovers that her grandfather was Ghostbuster Egon Spengler, and that he was apparently concerned that Summerville was about to become the site of a massive, possibly cataclysmic spectral event. 

After striking a bond with both fellow class outsider Podcast (Logan Kim) and goofy science teacher Gary (Paul Rudd), Phoebe convinces them both of Summerville's recent increase in spooky activity and they set out to bust some ghosts, aided by Trevor and his slightly older crush Lucky (Celeste O'Connor). Meanwhile, Gary grows closer to Callie, as she tries to come to terms with the way Egon abandoned his family years ago.

Rather than trying to replicate the New York / Saturday Night Live comedy vibe of the original film (as the 2016 reboot tried to do), Ghostbusters: Afterlife takes an approach that's closer to Netflix's Stranger Things (Wolfhard's casting in that respect certainly seems deliberate), setting the action in remote smalltown America and focusing on a group of likeable kids as the main characters. 

That decision pays off beautifully for the first three quarters of the film – the new characters are extremely engaging, the smalltown atmosphere works well and the initial set-piece when the kids first hit the road in the dusted-off Ghostbuster mobile (complete with new pop-out gunner seat) is pure punch-the-air magic. Similarly, the early riffs on the original monsters (a Slimer-like ghost called Muncher, a Gremlins-like spin on the Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man) are inspired callbacks, while also working well in their own right, in the sense that you don't have to have seen the original film to appreciate them.

All the young leads are terrific, but Mckenna Grace is the clear stand-out, giving a star-making performance that is utterly delightful. Part of that is her unflappable, science-is-cool outlook (she is very much her grandfather's daughter, they even look alike), but it's also the charming way she interacts with the other characters, particularly fellow science nerds Kim and Rudd. The latter is always brilliant, of course, but his singular comedic talents are put to particularly good use here and he sparks great comic chemistry with both Coon and the kids.

That's not to say the film doesn't also have its fair share of problems. For instance, O'Connor's character is conspicuously underwritten by comparison and there's a frankly baffling waste of the great J.K. Simmons, who appears briefly and doesn't even get any lines (suggesting several scenes were cut). 

There are other issues too, from little things, like the fact that none of the supposedly close characters seem to talk to each other – there's a point when they have each witnessed something spooky and none of them have told the others about it – to a general plot that relies way too heavily on a knowledge of the original film, rather than creating a new threat.

However, the biggest problem is the film's disappointing final act, which effectively sidelines its great new characters in favour of some not-actually-very-good fan service. It's no secret at this point that pretty much all the original characters are in the movie, but having them just show up right at the end for the sake of a few whoops of audience recognition feels both lazy and cynical. That's made even worse by one particular CGI-related decision that was clearly well-intentioned, but is ultimately over-indulged, setting a very worrying precedent in the process.

In short, there's a lot to enjoy in the first half of the film but, ironically, the more slavishly it attempts to recreate the original movie, the worse it gets, and the ending comes very close to scuppering the entire thing. There is, as it turns out, such a thing as too much nostalgia. Here's hoping any future Ghostbusters movies redress that balance. 

Two and a half out of five stars

Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Mckenna Grace, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Paul Rudd, Celeste O'Connor, Logan Kim, Bill Murray, Day Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver
Cert: 12A
Running time: 124 mins