A soaring journey to the rooftop of Africa

The name means "mountain of greatness." For many, Kilimanjaro is simply one of nature's most awe- inspiring wonders, the largest freestanding mountain in the world.

For others, however, Kilimanjaro represents not only a staggering landscape of mystical beauty and history, but a once-in-a-lifetime physical and spiritual challenge.

In his captivating new IMAX documentary, "Kilimanjaro: to the Roof of Africa," adventure filmmaker David Breashers follows five trekkers on an 11-day journey to the top of the volcanic mountain. The 55-mile climb is a test of endurance and fortitude through five climate zones, from the lush rain forests as the group starts the climb to the bitterly cold arctic glaciers of Kilimanjaro's summit.

"It's like walking from the equator to the North Pole in only a week," says the group's Chagga guide, Jacob Kyungai, and, as the air thins, altitude sickness is an ever-present threat.

The travelers, however, are not only inspiringly intrepid, but engaging. Ranging in age from 12 to 64, they bring a variety of backgrounds and motivations to the quest, which Breashers captures in on-the-spot interviews and narrated voiceovers as the journey proceeds.

The youngest is 12-year-old Nicole Wineland-Thomson, a Massachusetts schoolgirl whose sense of adventure is nurtured by her parents' safari business. Another girl, Tanzanian Hansi Mmari, wants to climb the snow-capped mountain that looms like the top of the world over her own backyard.

There's also a geophysicist who is the group's expert on the mountain's formation, an award-winning author who has spent her career traveling the mountains of the world and wants to realize a dream by peaking Kilimanjaro, and Kyungai, whose reverence for Kilimanjaro, which he's climbed more than 250 times, goes to the heart of the film.

"Kilimanjaro" is both entertaining and informative. Though the giant-screen IMAX technology isn't as impressively used in this film as in other adventures, there is stunning footage that takes the audience soaring over hundreds of wildebeests in full flight or surrounds them with a herd of elephants.

The actual arrival at the mountain's summit, however, is visually anticlimactic. It also lacks the drama and emotional charge that accompanied much of the climb. In the end, the film is more about the journey itself, "where ordinary people come to do something extraordinary in a place somewhere between heaven and earth."

• Produced in conjunction with the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Boston's Museum of Science, and Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, 'Kilimanjaro' is playing in those theaters as well as in theaters in Ft. Worth, Texas; Atlanta; Kansas City, Mo.; Calgary, Alberta; and Cape Town, South Africa. It opens June 24 at the American Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and July 5 in Singapore.

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