Arts Desk

Reviewed: The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest

Conrad Anker and Leo Houlding search for the truth about Mallory's Everest expedition.

Early on in National Geographic's new Mount Everest film The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest, the story turns to the question of why anyone would dare to ascend the world's highest peak.

The answer is eternal as it is simple: "Because it's there."

Those same words could apply to why visitors to the National Museum of Natural History's Samuel C. Johnson IMAX theater might see The Wildest Dream as it opens today for an open-ended run. But this is not to say the individual components of Anthony Geffen's 93-minute documentary are unimpressive. The sweeping views of and from the Himalayas are inescapably breathtaking, and the daring of star mountain climber Conrad Anker is quite admirable. Anker's expedition to retrace the steps of British climber George Mallory, as he led the first major attempt to conquer Everest in the 1920s, is exhilarating on its own.

Where The Wildest Dream begins to go downhill–if you'll excuse the pun–is in the excessive production. While Geffen discovered plenty of old footage of Mallory's trip to the base of Everest ahead of the 1924 climb, dramatic reenactments of bundled-up bodies spilling down an unidentifiable slope are an early distraction.

Then there's the narration. In any IMAX documentary, the audience can expect an A-list narrator. The Smithsonian's various theaters readily advertise the talents of Whoopi Goldberg (Journey to the Stars), Donald Sutherland (Dinosaurs: Giants of Patagonia) or Leonardo DiCaprio (Hubble 3D). In The Wildest Dream, narration duties fall to Liam Neeson to provide the soothing timbre required of this genre.

But Neeson is not the only well-known voice. Geffen deftly wades through the letters exchanged by George Mallory, his wife Ruth, climbing partner Sandy Irvine and another fellow climber Noel Odell. But rather than employ a handful of English nobodies to read these letters—some of which are quite gripping in their expressions of love, adventure and fear—the producers of The Wildest Dream went big. Joining Neeson are Ralph Fiennes as the voice of George Mallory, the late Natasha Richardson in her last film performance as Ruth Mallory, Hugh Dancy for Irvine, and Alan Rickman for Odell. Once again, The Wildest Dream distracts from itself with overproduction. The voice cast is unsurprisingly excellent but so flushed with star power that if you close your eyes, you'd think you've wandered into a mashup of Narnia and Hogwarts.

Anker's side of the film is much easier to follow. On his first trek up Everest in 1999, Anker discovered Mallory's remains less than 3,000 feet from the summit. The discovery led Anker to believe that Mallory, traversing the "Second Step" on the north face of the mountain, might have reached the roof of the world 30 years before Sir Edmund Hillary. In recreating Mallory's climb, Anker and his climbing partner Leo Houlding made some of the trek in vintage climbing gear and eschewed ladders and snow ramps that modern Everest expeditions use to reach the top in favor of free-climbing over 6,000-foot drops.

As someone who's only ever hiked up cleared trails in the Adirondacks, describing the feats shown in The Wildest Dream gives me chills. But ultimately, the film's production distracts from its climbers' incredible accomplishments.

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