Review: ‘Four Million Houseguests’

Latest "Imax 3-D Experience" is a mountain of cinematography driven by a thimble of story, a gorgeous collection of images in search of a unifying theme that leaves you gagging like a dust mite in a windstorm. "Four Million Houseguests"? Heck, even three are too many in this clash of science and sensibility.

Latest “Imax 3-D Experience” is a mountain of cinematography driven by a thimble of story, a gorgeous collection of images in search of a unifying theme that leaves you gagging like a dust mite in a windstorm. “Four Million Houseguests”? Heck, even three are too many in this clash of science and sensibility.

The large-size, multidimensional-format film represents Imax’s maiden foray into the world of the microscopic. But a fantastic voyage it is not. The 3-D technology is mostly wasted, aside from a few nifty shots of dripping water and floating bubbles; how much are we supposed to care what tea leaves look like when blown up 40,000 times?

The larger problem with “Four Million Houseguests,” however, is that writers Paul Cox (who also directs), Barbara Kerr (who also produces), John Larkin and Margot Wiburd make the error of trying to blend the ooh-aah photography with a lame story, rather than taking a docu approach.

Our plot, as it were, finds a young, headstrong girl named Elly (Charlotte Sullivan, of “Harriet the Spy”) who accompanies her parents, Jonathan (C. David Johnson) and Claire (Gosia Dobrowolska), on a two-week trip to her grandfather’s secluded cabin on a creek.

The cabin, filmed in New Brunswick, Canada, is an eccentric, whimsical place (or so we’re told) that matches the personality of the eccentric grandpa. And gramps leaves behind a treasure map of sorts for Elly to sort through that will give her a window into his warped scientific world of wonder.

In Elly’s room, the alarm clock is connected to a bubble machine, and strings of clues send her on a wild goose chase involving microscopes and magnification.

That’s pretty much it for story. We, the audience, are supposed to be spellbound as Elly discovers what grains of pollen, moth wings, spiders and human breath look like when blown up to fill the 50-by-80-foot Imax 3-D screen. But after the first few lingering images, it’s clear that we have been duped into following the cinematic equivalent of a chemistry class.

The misleading print ads for “Four Million Houseguests” give the impression that the intrepid Elly is out there interacting with colonies of bacteria, like some Luke Skywalker of lint. In fact, all she’s doing is peering at it right along with us.

It helps little that James Garner’s gee-whiz narration is so cloyingly patronizing.

On the positive side, there are some spectacular and enchanting pictures from cinematographer Vic Sarin. The scale is predictably impressive, as is the musical score by Oscar nominee Richard Robbins (“Howards End,” “The Remains of the Day”). There is enough awe-inspiration to hook at least a portion of the kiddie crowd.

But when “Four Million Houseguests” is over, an adult human is left wondering how he could have missed 3,999,968 of the houseguests. And he wonders why he needs an Imax screen to peer at slide samples.

Four Million Houseguests

Production

An Imax Corp. presentation of an Imax Corp. and ABC/Kane Prods. production. Produced by Sandy Dundas, Barbara Kerr, Lorne Orleans. Executive producers, Andrew Gellis, Dennis B. Kane, Jonathan Barker. Directed by Paul Cox. Screenplay, Cox, Barbara Kerr, John Larkin, Margot Wiburd.

Crew

Camera, Vic Sarin; editor, Kerr; music, Richard Robbins; stereographer, Noel Archambault. Reviewed at the Imax 3-D Theatre, Edwards Irvine Spectrum, Irvine, Calif., May 4, 1997. Running time: 45 MIN.

With

Elly - Charlotte Sullivan
Jonathan - C. David Johnson
Claire - Gosia Dobrowolska
Narrator: James Garner.
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