In 1948 Walt Disney invented the nature documentary.
It was inspired by his experience on Bambi, when he brought live animals to the studio lot so they could be studied by animators, and a documentary short he had seen. Already an advocate of conservation, he wanted to capture nature as it really was. His early nature documentaries, known as “True-Life Adventures,” would pave the way for a series of emotionally gripping and gorgeously photographed films from the company. In 2007 the Disneynature was formally introduced, producing new feature films in the mold of the earlier “True-Life Adventures.” There’s been a new Disneynature film released almost every year, usually around Earth Day, and the company’s nature documentary collection grew exponentially last year when Disney closed the deal to buy 20th Century Fox, which included National Geographic’s formidable library. And now much of this content is available on Disney+.
With Earth Day upon us and the kids stuck at home and away from school, we figured it would be a good time to rundown the very best nature documentaries on Disney+. After all, these are movies that they can have fun watching and learn something too.
A brief disclaimer: there are a bunch of wonderful nature specials and TV series on Disney+, most of them from the National Geographic label, but they’re not included here. This is strictly the best feature-length nature documentaries available on the platform. One additional caveat: they’re the best documentaries on the service right now. It’s worth noting, since a number of classic Disney nature documentaries, old and new, have yet to debut on Disney+.
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The African Lion (1955)
Although titled The African Lion, this “True-Life Adventure” from 1955 does a remarkable job showing a number of animal species in Kenya and Tanganyika: giraffes swaying their necks in the breeze, rhinos bathing in mud, and African buffalo keeping a watchful eye on predators (they’re too big and sturdily built to mess with). The description on Disney+ points out that the film is the result of three years of research by Elma and Alfred Milotte, whose short film inspired Walt Disney to hire them and ultimately led to the creation of “True-Life Adventures.” The African Lion was widely hailed (it won the Silver Bear for Documentaries at the Berlin Film Festival) and critically acclaimed upon its release. And while some of the science feels outdated (Winston Hibler describes the African lion as “nothing more than an overgrown cat”), the documentary still feels vibrant 65 years later. As for Elma and Alfred Milotte, they won six Academy Awards for their collaborations with Walt and would later become official Disney Legends.
The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos (2008)
I know what you’re thinking: a feature-length documentary about flamingos? And honestly, who can blame you? But Crimson Wing (its title comes from the Latin name for flamingos) is one of the most fascinating and unexpectedly gripping entries in the Disneynature canon. Set at Lake Natron in Tanzania, it is bizarre and beautiful in equal measure, starting with the fact that two million flamingos migrate to the lake and lay their eggs on a giant, 10-mile wide island made of floating salt. From there it gets even stranger, like how flamingo chicks are fed a potent mixture of algae and their parent’s own blood or how those same chicks can tragically be slowed down if the salt calcifies around their feet. And who knew that hyenas hunted flamingos? (But don’t worry — even in death, “their life force returns to the lake.”) Everything about this documentary is appealingly odd and feels genuinely revelatory, looking at the bird’s time in Africa in almost novelistic detail. It’s like stumbling across an alien world you never knew existed, full of creatures as familiar as they are otherworldly. The Crimson Wing is really something.
Deep Blue (2003)
It’s unclear how exactly Deep Blue, a BBC production released by Miramax back in 2003, wound up on Disney+, especially considering the complicated licensing and distribution agreements that followed Disney’s sale of the company in 2010. (Just in the past few weeks, ViacomCBS signed a deal for co-ownership of the Miramax library.) However Deep Blue wound up on Disney+ shouldn’t matter, just that it’s here — and that it’s glorious. A condensed version of BBC series The Blue Planet, featuring all-new footage and alternate camera angles, it is coolly narrated by Pierce Brosnan and takes a grander look at the world’s oceans than some of the more focused nature documentaries on the platform dedicated to specific species. (Oceans, a similar Disneynature production from 2009, isn’t currently available on Disney+.) The documentary is mesmerizing, even while highlighting the viciousness of nature (an orca killing a seal and flipping its corpse into the air is brutal) and without the added emotional oomph of the animals being personified (as they are in many of the Disney productions). Deep Blue seeks to document the ocean as it is, full of awesome sights and amazing creatures but also rife with danger. It definitely gets points for honesty.
Dolphin Reef (2018)
One of the latest Disneynature features is also one its best. Dolphin Reef arrived on Disney+ last week, the localized version of a movie that Disney had released in France (under the title Blue) way back in 2018. Narrated by a Natalie Portman, it focuses on a tropical reef and all of its bizarre inhabitants, including a grumpy mantis shrimp, a school of hump-head parrot fish, and, of course, a pod of dolphins, led by the young Echo and his put-upon mother Kumu. Portman’s narration is stately and engaged, expertly complimenting jaw-dropping underwater photography. Somehow, she manages to sound stately even when explaining how the parrot fish consume dead coral and then poop out sand. (When she’s doing a “voice” as one of the aquatic creatures, it’s even better; there’s an outside chance she could score an Oscar nomination for her roles as a snobby shrimp.) Oscillating between peaceful (as the camera glides through the reef) to thrilling (as a pod of orcas hunt a baby humpback whale) and back again, Dolphin Reef eschews any talk of pollution or mankind’s effects on the reef, for an apolitical mixture of education and entertainment. It’s like a feature film adaptation of EPCOT Center’s old Living Seas pavilion.
Earth Live (2017)
This feature-length National Geographic special is built around an intriguing concept: “a dream-team of award-winning cinematographers,” dispatched around the planet, are asked to film what they’re seeing using 57 “state-of-the-art cameras.” Hosted by Jane Lynch, Amazing Race emcee Phil Keoghan and zoologist Chris Packham, this “live TV safari” is sort of like Live PD but instead of a Tulsa cop chasing down a twitchy meth addict, we’re cutting from Fiji, where some brave underwater photographers are chasing bull sharks to San Antonio, Texas, to see a bunch of bats spookily emerge from a cave (Packham calls it a “bat-nado,” which should be some indicator of the level of comedy we’re dealing with) to Harar, Ethiopia, where a cluster of hyenas are gathered around a very brave local, who is feeding them scraps. (They claim to capture the nighttime animals with something called a “Mooncam.”) Sure, some of the thrill of Earth Live is gone since it’s no longer live, but the way that you hopscotch from location to location, animal to animal, is still pretty fun.
The Flood (2018)
Narrated by Angela Bassett, The Flood is centered around the Okavango Delta which, once a year, is flooded with water, turning an area surrounded by the sandy Kalahari Desert into “a wildlife paradise like none on earth.” Before the water comes, The Flood feels somewhat same-y, featuring hallmarks of any Africa-set nature documentary (a cheetah kills a gazelle in startling graphic detail). But once the water starts flowing, everything changes. “Billions of gallons of water engulf what was once a vast savannah,” as Bassett says, and you get to see animals that have been the subject of other nature documentaries in a new light: elephants lumbering through the water, leaping antelopes kicking up spray, lions swimming (and hunting a hippo no less). Produced in 2018 by National Geographic, The Flood is a more technologically advanced nature documentary than some of the other selections on the platform, with some eye-popping slow-motion flourishes that make you feel like you can count every water droplet, and is one of the most fascinating and transformative, made all the more impressive by Bassett’s pitch-perfect narration.
This one is cheating (sort of). National Geographic’s Jane is ostensibly the story of Jane Goodall, the foremost primatologist and anthropologist, best known for her work studying chimpanzees. And while there are a fair amount of talking head interviews with Goodall as she retraces her life, it’s also very much a nature documentary, composed largely of footage of the researcher in Africa in the 1960s that was believed to be lost. (This footage has a haunted, eerie quality, underlined by the propulsive Philip Glass score.) Director Brett Morgen employs some nifty flourishes, like animating her journals to see how her research was progressing (and the accompanying newspaper coverage that followed), making her legwork come to life. And in a way Jane makes a perfect companion to the other nature documentaries on Disney+ by not only showing the interior lives of the chimpanzees through the prism of scientific study, but also by showing you the types of science and research that goes into the documentation of these animals. (But if you just want chimpanzee footage, Disneynature’s Chimpanzee, narrated by Tim Allen — who does a lot of his trademark grunting — is also available on Disney+.)
Jungle Cat (1960)
Big cats are a popular subject for nature documentaries, and there are a number of worthwhile films on Disney+ (see also: the Samuel L. Jackson–narrated African Cats). But what makes Jungle Cat, one of Walt’s “True-Life Adventures” from 1960, so special is that it focuses on the South American jaguar, instead of big cats in Africa or the American southwest (though there’s some good cougar content in The Vanishing Prairie). “Here is the quintessence of all that makes a true cat — the grace, the beauty, the perseverance and power,” narrator Winston Hibler purrs. (Fun fact, Hibler was also a writer on such beloved Disney classics as Cinderella and Peter Pan.) In telling the story of “the great cat,” Jungle Cat also serves as a celebration of the South American rainforest, a lush explosion of vegetation and color. There’s much screen time devoted to the flowering plants of the area, which goes along well with the equally flowery narration (“Hers is a career of assassination”) and the entire project nicely aligns with Walt’s fascination with South America, which began with a peacekeeping mission to the area in World War II and would inspire his work for years to come. It’s mind-boggling to think of went into making Jungle Cat, during a time before lightweight cameras and remotely operated drones; it’s a tropical marvel.
The Living Desert (1953)
Another one of the original “True-Life Adventures” (this one from 1953), this one features an animated prologue that explains how meteorological and geological anomalies give way to vast stretches like Death Valley. (The sequence was worked on by the legendary John Hench, a Disney artist who became one of the company’s most heralded Imagineers.) “Incredibly ugly yet fantastically beautiful” is how narrator (Winston Hibler, again) describes the so-called living desert, a supposed wasteland that is, in fact, full of fantastical creatures (including a breed of lizard described as “diminutive dinosaurs that dine on daisies”). While the narration can be outdated, unsophisticated, and clunky, it also adds a certain amount of humor and energy, especially when paired with Paul J. Smith’s energetic score. Notable for being first feature-length “True Life Adventure,” The Living Desert may be old-fashioned but it’s still visually arresting and emotionally engaging (hope that tortoise can flip itself over!) as ever.
Released 14 years after March of the Penguins became a low-key sensation, Disneynature’s Penguins proves that there’s still a fair amount of ground to cover, partially by framing it as a romantic comedy between a young, clueless penguin named Steve and his love Adeline and partially because the filmmakers decided to populate the soundtrack with 80s bangers. That means our title card is accompanied by Patti LaBelle’s “Stir It Up” (yes, the song from Beverly Hills Cop) and dramatic moments are punctuated by vintage hits like REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” and Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.” There’s no discernable reason for the songs, and licensing restrictions kept Disney from advertising their place in the movie, but it does a lot to keep Penguins, one of the lighter Disneynature romps (save for a near-miss orca attack, of course), even more bouncy and buoyant. The soundtrack also does the impossible: makes a subject matter already widely covered feel fresh and electric all over again. Who wants to march when you can groove?
Secrets of Life (1956)
You could think of Secrets of Life, a “True-Life Adventure” from 1956, as the precursor to Wings of Life. This is, according to narrator Hibler, “the story of adaptation and self-preservation,” and showcases all of the tiny ways the natural world is connected. (The poster said that it “entertainingly revealed nature’s most intimate secrets,” which sounds a lot more salacious than the movie actually is.) Some of Secrets of Life is a little hokey and science fair-ish, like seeing how seeds grow in a cutaway diorama or the lengthy montage set to time lapse photography of flowers opening up. But at the time this footage must have been mind-blowing, especially in full color. When you think about when it came out, it also feels quietly revolutionary, as it boldly showcased evolution and all the ways that plants and animals equip themselves for the natural world. Although the narration does sometimes slip into drippy Disney sentiment like “now the magic potion of this fairy tale,” when describing the reproduction of bees, no less (and right before Hibler explains that she emerges and “kills her rivals”), it doesn’t diminish its singular power. Truly magical.
The Vanishing Prairie (1954)
This 1954 entry, an Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, was produced with the cooperation of the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and seeks to “recreate the wondrous pageant that was nature’s prairie.” (Keep in mind that this doesn’t sport Disney+’s catchall “contains outdated cultural depictions” disclaimer but the narration still has stuff like, “It was the red man who claimed this vast array as his own.” There’s also a part with the “prairie chicken” where they play stereotypical “tribal music” for comical effect. Yikes.) The cinematography beautifully portrays the expansiveness of the American plains, occasionally capturing something unexpected or surprisingly profound, like the birth of a buffalo calf in all its gooey glory. “The calf is helpless for the first few seconds,” narrator Hibler gravely intones. The animals of The Vanishing Prairie don’t have the otherworldly dazzle of some of the other nature documentaries on Disney+ (oh, look, ducks), but still come across as majestic and vital components of a fascinating ecosystem.
Wings of Life (2011)
Perhaps the greatest (and most underrated) Disneynature documentary, Wings of Life takes a heady subject matter — the symbiosis between animals and plants — and transforms it into something palpable and oftentimes downright exciting. Part of what makes Wings of Life such a triumph is how just abstract it can be; through slow-motion, specialized cameras and time-lapse photography, even the smallest and most still members of the jungle and desert become inspiring, locomotive titans. Plus, there’s the fact that Meryl Streep (yes, that Meryl Streep) narrates the entire documentary from the point of view of a flower, which lends Wings of Life an additional layer of gentle surrealism and plays into its framing structure as an epic love story between flora and fauna. Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Oscar-winner Meryl Streep recite weird stuff like, “When pollinated, we cactus flowers turn into fruit, with seeds to start a new generation.” It also, unlike some of the other Disneynature films, is unashamed to get into the dangers facing our ecosystem, including the plight of the honeybee. At times the most beautiful, serene Disneynature film and also the more alarming, Wings of Life conjures a strange and enchanting experience all its own.