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Non-Review Review: Ghosthunters on Icy Trails

Ghosthunters on Icy Trails is derivative as anything.

The movie walks a very thin line between knowing self-aware homage and cynical appropriation. The movie’s script draws attention to many of its influences and inspirations, but there is frequently a feeling that many of these ideas and images worked much better the first time around. There some nice gags in there, and two solid central performances from Milo Parker and Anke Engelke, but Ghosthunters on Icy Trails frequently feels like a featherweight imitation of much more entertaining family films.

Pass the popcorn...

Pass the popcorn…

The basic structure of the film is a standard children’s adventure. Young Tom Thompson (or Tom Tomsky) is a child who is afraid of everything. Early in the film, he is terrified to venture down into the basement of his house. It turns out that he has good reason, finding dispossessed spectre (or “ASG”“average spooky ghost”) Hugo haunting the cellar. From there, Tom is quickly drawn into a shadow world of intrigue populated by secret organisations and witty acronyms as he becomes embroiled in a plot against the human race by a sinister ice ghost.

It is all basic stuff, and Ghosthunters on Icy Trails quickly gets down to business. The film never really stops to breath, jumping from plot point to plot point to plot point. To deal with his guest, Tom is referred to the “CGI”“the Central Ghosthunting Institute.” The movie never bothers to explain how the organisation works. When the plot needs it to be a secret society, the organisation disguises itself as various other organs of government; when the plot needs to get Tom in touch with it, he just happens to meet and neighbour who can point him in the right direction.

Dressed for action...

Dressed for action…

There is an efficiency to this storytelling, meaning that the film never gets stuck on anything for far too long. However, it does mean that the world (and the characters inhabiting it) never feel tangible or real. In the third act, Hugo is confronted by a revelation that seems to change his relationship to Tom entirely, but it exists merely as a powerful note upon which a scene might conclude; when Hugo comes back into contact with Tom later in the film, this betrayal is dealt in an almost off-hand manner.

Characters in Ghosthunters on Icy Trails don’t have conversations or exchanges; instead, they exist to spout dialogue that is either designed to drive the plot or land a joke. A lot of the movie’s attempts at humour come out of left-field, with not real set-up and pay-off; there are points where it feels like Ghosthunters on Icy Trails is actively pandering to its young audience with the type of silly non sequitur humour that is very difficult to pull off. Its approach to character development and definition is quite similar.

They look like they've seen a ghost...

They look like they’ve seen a ghost…

There is, to be fair, a sense of knowing that underscores Ghosthunters on Icy Trails. The movie is perhaps over-stuffed with techno-jargon and acronyms, but there are some nice gags thrown in as well. On his first tour of the Central Ghosthunting Institute, Tom gasps, “This is all CGI?” Of course it is. Later on, the plan to defeat the film’s antagonist hinges on the team collecting little glowing ghosts. The acronym of choice? “L.E.D.” One very quick gag reveals that the organisation leases an office to a team investigating socks disappearing from washing machines.

That said, there are points where it all feels a little bit too much. Ghosthunters on Icy Trails is populated with awkward dumps of exposition that likely worked much better in the source novels than they do in the context of a children’s film. The desire to build a world is commendable, but there is an excess of convoluted and overly technical back story heaped upon the audience. The way that the film chooses to convey such info through generic info dumps undercuts potentially interesting ideas; for example, about what lies “beyond” or who keeps lost souls company.

Green with envy...

Green with envy…

It doesn’t help matters that Ghosthunters on Icy Trails works every hard to evoke any number of superior family films. After all, Hugo is nothing but a wisecracking reiteration of Slimer from Ghostbusters. The design and portrayal of the CGI owes no small debt to the Men in Black films. At one point, Tom bursts into a room carrying a water pistol loaded with orange juice. “Say hello to my citrusy friend!” he boasts, a very strange reference to Scarface for a family film. At another point, Hugo quips, “Yippee kay yay, icy sucker!”

Indeed, there is a very awkward recurring sense of bowlderisation running through Ghosthunters on Icy Trails, as if the film is not entirely sure how delicately it should be addressing its young audience. Early in the film, a veteran agent stops just short of a four-letter word; she uses various family-friendly euphamisms for the rest of the film. Even allowing for limitations imposed upon family films, there is something very odd about adult characters using phases like “snot ball” and “pile of puck” in an utterly unironic fashion.

Not very receptive...

Not very receptive…

To be fair, some of the issues are simply down to the film’s nature as a family film co-produced between Ireland and Germany. A lot of the film was shot in Austria, and many of the characters are dubbed over; they appear to be speaking English in various scenes, but there are some issues with the ADR. As a result, the banter between the characters feels more than a little stale or canned. Given that the cast is international in scope, it seems quite likely that the German version has the same issues.

Still, there are elements of Ghosthunters on Icy Trails that work reasonably well. The film moves along at a decent clip, and is never afraid of a cheesy joke. The cartoonish tone of the film blends well with computer-generated imagery, offering the film an endearing elasticity. The characters (and the world that they inhabit) never seems quite real, but it embraces that unreality with relish. In particular, Hugo himself is very well realised, and leads Milo Parker and Anke Engelke work well with each other and their CGI co-star.

All goo in the hood...

All goo in the hood…

Ghosthunters on Icy Trails is certainly not the strongest family movie of the season, but it is not the worst.

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