As a writer, I pride myself on always, or at least usually, having the right words. In this capacity I hereby declare that COVID-19 really sucks fucking shit.
There’s nothing good about it. Even the one silver lining to this catastrophe, that reduced human activity has benefited the environment has, unfortunately, been overstated. And even if wild animals were thriving, we couldn’t go see them anyway — the zoos are closed, man. The zoos are closed. (Earth to Paul Simon: It’s not “all happening” at the zoo. Not now.)
I’m sorry for being such a downer. I guess I’ve been cooped up in my apartment too long, and away from the outdoors. Luckily, streaming platforms have a palliative solution: There’s an endless, border-free range of nature documentaries waiting for your click, and they’ve actually brought me a great deal of solace over the past few days. My wife and I, not quite of a mindset to watch “difficult” programming, are really grooving on these visuals-first offerings.
“Hey, look at that guy!” I shout as I point at a bear cub flopping around as bees pinch his snout. That’s about all I can muster for on-the-spot commentary.
While there is an abundance of television series, from dum-dum Shark Week to David Attenborough’s programs, as well as PBS’ long-running Nature and the huge cache under Disney+’s National Geographic tab, I’m fond of an increasingly endangered species: the feature-length nature film.
Here are 10 outstanding titles ready to transport you right now…
The king of the nature film jungle right now is Disneynature, and it has been for over a decade. Their 15 titles are all worth checking out, but I’ll pump the breaks on including too many on this list. By-and-large, there is a formula: An extremely well-funded production unit with state-of-the-art equipment is embedded with a pack/clan/pride/whatever of animals and follows them for a year as they make their migratory rounds.
These movies are very brand-loyal to the “circle of life” schtick, but go easy on the “red in tooth and claw” side of things (tho sometimes animals do die). Importantly (and, to some critics, annoyingly) there is some mild anthropomorphizing going on, giving individual family members names, usually highlighting a scampy youth and honoring a wise elder.
The latest (and quite good) entry is Elephant, narrated by Meghan Markle. (Royal watchers may chuckle that she is credited as Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, which I think is no longer her name?) More importantly, the footage of rascally Jomo splashing in the mud before he and his extended family race against thirst through the Kalahari Desert from the Okavango Delta to the Zambezi River is absolute joy. Warning: You watch this movie, and you will shout “HE’S SO CUTE!” about a thousand times.
Follow-Up: Another strong Disneynature film that follows the formula is Chimpanzee from 2012. Yes, it’s got Tim Allen (and he does do the grunt-voice) but no less a dignitary as Jane Goodall came out in support of this movie, in which some primatology theories were actually proven for the first time thanks to captured footage of tribe activity.
Wings of Life (2011)
And here is the Disneynature movie that most does not fit the formula. Directed by Louie Schwartzberg (who is basically the James Cameron of time-lapse filmmaking), the title and associated image on the Disney+ app may make it seem as if this movie is about butterflies. Yes, butterflies (specifically Monarchs) are a part of it, but the star of this show is pollen.
Yes, that’s right: The Walt Disney Company put out an expensive, bleeding edge technological wonder about pollen. And it’s incredible. Narrated by Meryl Streep (she speaks for “the flowers”) we watch as spores and nectar hitch a ride from bees and bats and hummingbirds in the Panamanian rainforest, the Mexican high desert and a backyard garden somewhere in Indiana. The learning aspect of this film is high-intensity (I was ablaze on Wikipedia after, as I needed confirmation that milkflowers really do behave this way), but this is also a deep, hazy head film. You could easily switch your Sonos speakers over to The Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore with these visuals and have a great time.
Follow-Up: The other heady (and not overly jokey) Disneynature pic is Crimson Wing: The Mystery of Flamingos from 2009. It ditches the anthropomorphized storytelling and is allllllllll colors, man.
Voyage to the End of the World (1977)
Let’s talk about one of the O.G.s of nature films, one Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The name is so famous we forget he was a real guy — kinda like Col. Sanders, who is as forever associated with chicken as Cousteau is to fish. Cousteau’s first feature film, The Silent World, won both the Academy Award for Best Documentary and the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or in 1956. He, his crew and his ship Calypso became international adventure celebrities, with Cousteau cultivating a well-deserved cult of personality in addition to capturing gorgeous and previously unseen images from the deep.
He produced enough television specials to fill an ocean, but not that many theatrically released feature films. Voyage to the End of the World is the only one available to stream legally (for free on Amazon) and might actually be the best, since by now Cousteau was a tough old salt over 60 and has already secured his branded look. He and his crew head to Antarctica to search for fossils, play with penguins and swim through the darkness lurking beneath icebergs — all while wearing those ridiculous red toques. Tragedy strikes when a member of his crew, Michel Laval, dies in a freak helicopter propeller accident. A lot of nature documentaries offer the suggestion of danger, but this film reminds us that it is real.
Follow-Up: If ever there is a time to go back and watch The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, it’s after taking a look at this doc. Wes Anderson wasn’t just vaguely inspired by the concept of Cousteau, he basically ripped this whole movie off (in a good way!).
White Wilderness (1958)
Before Disneynature was even a gleam in Bob Iger’s eye, Walt Disney was pumping out its True-Life Adventure series. This collection of shorts and features won 14 Academy Awards from 1948 to 1960. The narration can be a little dry by today’s standards, and for something with the Disney brand, they shy away from violence less than you might think (well, this was around the time when Uncle Walt had Bambi’s mother gunned down before our eyes).
Anyway, the most famous of the bunch is White Wilderness, and it’s for a controversial reason. This documentary into all things Arctic includes a sequence that showed mass lemming migration, in which a percentage of the population hurls themselves into the sea, and certain death — the idea of lemmings regularly jumping off cliffs that’s taken hold in the popular consciousness (even inspiring a classic video game) comes directly from this movie. And yet, it was later revealed that this was staged. You’ve got that right: the Walt Disney Company drowned a bunch of adorable, fuzzy little critters because it made for good footage.
Dead lemmings aside, there’s terrific footage of polar bears, wolverines, caribou, walruses and seals. There are also some gorgeous transitions between establishing shots enhanced with paintings from Disney’s in-house Rembrandt of the time, Ub Iwerks.
Follow-Up: Ethical issues aside, the True-Life Adventure series is a fantastic document of the type of older mass entertainment that rarely gets viewed by non-scholars. The Living Desert is also worth looking at, and Perri, about a squirrel and based on a book by the author of Bambi, is an entertaining hybrid of documentary and fiction.
This French expedition into the weirdness beneath our feet was a surprise sensation back in the day, held over at New York’s Film Forum for months. Using souped-up lenses and playful editing, Microcosmos is the best movie about bugs ever made. With no Attenborough-esque voiceover to suggest for a moment this is educational, we dodge air raid-like raindrops with ants, sigh at the Sisyphean struggles of a dung beetle, watch spiders spin their beautiful death traps, and in the film’s most notable sequence, witness the slimy X-rated mating dance of two lustful snails.
Yes, kids will love this, but more than any other film than, say, Eraserhead, this is one for when the edibles hit.
Follow-Up: Many of the same producers later made Winged Migration, which follows the extraordinary adventures of migratory birds. It’s not quite as “turn-down-the-TV-volume-and-put-on-Pink Floyd” as Microcosmos, but it’s incredibly beautiful.
The Bear (1988)
Wait, time out — this isn’t a documentary, this is a regular movie! Hey, I didn’t say they would all be documentaries, I said nature films. And few movies have more astonishing footage of wildlife in their natural habitat than Jean-Jacques Annaud’s international sensation The Bear.
Almost all of this footage is real. This was accomplished by using trained bears — Bart the Bear as the giant kodiak and Youk the Bear as the adorable cub — and positioning them in ways that fit the story based on James Oliver Curwood’s book. I suspect there were a lot of happy accidents, too. Like, sure, you want Bart the Bear to express “I am horny now” but how do you tell him that? You roll camera and figure it out.
Anyhow, The Bear is about a little cub who loses his mom during a honey-collecting accident, but ingratiates himself to an enormous forest beast. There are hunters after them, but the film isn’t so black-and-white as to paint the humans as pure evil. Everyone’s just trying to live, man.
Since this movie is French, there are a few whacked-out scenes, like when we enter the dreams of our young cub, who is terrorized by visions of spiked stop-motion frogs. It’s terrific.
Follow-Up: A far less romantic view of bears is found in Werner Herzog’s classic Grizzly Man.
“No animals were harmed in the making of this film,” the trailer reads. “Seventy members of the cast and crew were.”
One of the more batshit productions ever made, producer Noel Marshall, flush with dough after making The Exorcist, took his family, including wife Tippi Hedren and stepdaughter Melanie Griffith, and moved to a big cat preserve. Together, over 10 years, they made this lion, tiger and puma exploitation picture.
Things start out playful, but once a storyline with poachers starts up, it’s wall-to-wall action. Hedren broke her leg, Griffith required facial reconstructive surgery, Marshall got gangrene (you can see the not-fake-blood moment when he gets injured) and cinematographer Jan de Bont required 200 stitches when half his scalp was ripped off. Movies!
Follow-Up: Not all big cats are tearing humans apart. Remember Life of Pi? That was nice. Go watch Life of Pi.
The Creeping Garden (2015)
Elephants, bears, lions. Come on, show me something weird! Turn down the lights, get real cozy and explore the uncharted universe of slime molds.
The Creeping Garden is strange both in its subject and its style, as if the filmmakers were new arrivals from a distant star and wanted to learn about protoctista and mycelia in “less than two of your Earth hours.” In addition to far-out photography, the movie highlights slime collectors and taxonomers, computer scientists (who derived programs from slime’s natural movements) and artists who manipulate slime growth to an aesthetic end.
Follow-Up: It’s still out on the art house circuit (or, I should say, it was prior to COVID-19) so Fantastic Fungi, directed by Wings of Life’s Schwartzberg isn’t streaming yet. But this deep dive into mycology, featuring Star Trek: Discovery model Paul Stamets (an actual mushroom scientist) is absolutely spectacular.
Animals Are Beautiful People (1974)
In some ways, this is the best of the bunch. It’s incredibly informative, looks terrific and is playful enough to keep kids interested. But it’s also honest about nature being, in the words of Woody Allen, “an enormous restaurant.”
Produced by South African filmmaker Jamie Uys, we scan the Namib and Kalahari Deserts, stopping at the Okavango Delta. Whereas Disneynature went all-in on elephants, Uys is more interested in the oddball creatures and their unique survival stories. The egg-eating snake, for example, which can unlatch its jaw to gobble enormous ovum, but since it has no teeth, has to pretend to be a killer to scare off predators. There’s also the ugly-looking marabou stork, the cartwheeling baboon and the go-away bird that warns zebras of approaching danger. A personal favorite is the hardworking husband-wife team of the hornbill birds, for whom child-rearing in the desert involves an awful lot of precise and intricate work. There’s also the honey badger (pre-internet fame) and its unusual cross-species deal with the honeyguide bird. Exactly why these two animals work in tandem to find food will never be known, but they do it anyway, and it’s fascinating to watch.
Follow-Up: Uys had an unexpected worldwide hit a few years later with The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which an indigenous person from the area shown in Animals are Beautiful People encounters a discarded Coca-Cola bottle, kicking off a series of comic events.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003)
San Francisco filmmaker Judy Irving exudes tenderness and warmth with her micro-budget documentaries, capturing a human element that Cousteau-esque adventurers and well-funded techies with NASA-inspired lenses usually miss.
Despite the title (and maybe the point of this list) the star of this film is a human being, a musician-poet down on his luck with no fixed address named Mark Bittner. He is the self-appointed caretaker of a group of South American red-crowned conures, which somehow escaped captivity and ended up in his historically bohemian neighborhood. Bittner introduces us to his flock, all of which have personalities. We also watch as he goes to city hall to urge for protective measures for the new, winged citizens. Irving, behind the camera, becomes a character in the story, too, in ways that are far more rewarding if you discover them yourself. While I’ve been intentionally avoiding humans with this nature-film plunge, it’s good to see that there are folks out there who will always lead with kindness.
This independently produced film ended up on PBS, oftentimes a cinematic dead-end, but it became something of a surprise (but well-deserved) theatrical hit back in 2003.
Follow-Up: Irving made another quite similar-sounding film, Pelican Dreams, in 2014, that “features a young brown pelican who mistakenly landed — tired, hungry and confused — on the roadway of the Golden Gate Bridge, creating a spectacular traffic jam.” I haven’t seen it, but it’s on Amazon and I’m watching it immediately.
The Best Stuff to Binge in Quarantine
- Check out our picks for the best HBO deep cuts to stream.
- Want something different? Here are the dumbest comedies guaranteed to make you laugh.
- In its 40th season, the reality show Survivor is better than ever. Here are the best past seasons.
- It’s time to sit back and listen to some Steely Dan — the perfect music for the moment.
- Forget Contagion. It’s all about The Happening.
- Want more active entertainment? Portal is the game you need.
- The unabashed optimism of John Prine will make you feel better.
- For Gen Z, everyone seems to be on Club Penguin.
- If you feel like the world is doomed, try French New Wave cinema.
- Take a trip back in time with 10 essential silent films.
- Spend some time doing jigsaw puzzles. They’re great for anxiety relief.
- Hungry? You can watch a Michelin-starred Italian chef livestream his dinner.
- Thirsty? Here’s our list of the best fictional bars in pop culture.
- When all else fails, Cheers!