In the mid-1940s, Walt Disney himself created the nature documentary, partially inspired by the work with real-life animals that had inspired films like “Bambi.” He wanted to capture the truth of our environment, but package them in easily readable stories that could appeal to a mass audience. His “True-Life Adventures,” released between 1948 and 1960 and taking various forms, he introduced people to nature and animals in ways that were never thought possible before. And it’s with this ethos that the Disneynature label was formed. Usually released around Earth Day, with a portion of the proceeds going to various conservatories, these movies are a treat. And as such, we’ve decided to rank all of them. But we warned: it gets wild.
13. ‘Growing Up Wild’ (2016)
“Growing Up Wild” is annoying and aggravating, mostly because it is comprised of footage from “Chimpanzee,” “African Cats,” “Monkey Kingdom” and “Bears,” but just repackaged into a confusing jumble. For a while I couldn’t tell if I was watching a new documentary or a kind of “greatest hits” package and by the time it finally dawned on me that I was watching a lazy clips-show, it was too late, and I watched the whole thing. Daveed Diggs is a solid choice for a narrator, though, and if you have no interest in watching the full-length version of the movies, there are more offensive Cliffs Notes.
12. 'Expedition China' (2017)
“Born in China,” an “ambitious natural history film” was commercially released in 2017 that also doubled as a way of indoctrinating and educating mainland China about the glories of the Walt Disney Company. (It was released in China on August 2016, two months after the opening of Shanghai Disneyland.) But it also spawned something of a trilogy of films, two of which are centered around the behind-the-scenes complexity of shooting “Born in China.” “Expedition China” takes a more macro view of the production process and is narrated by the great Maggie Q. It is also, sadly, the less interesting of the two tangential films, with less focus and emotional heft. Still, it’s gorgeous and gripping as always.
11. 'Chimpanzee' (2012)
There are two kinds of Disneynature movies, ones that give the animal characters personalities and those that take a more abstract, big-picture view of things. “Chimpanzee” is definitely in the former and, for the most part, it’s pretty successful. (And honestly, they couldn’t have gotten a better narrator than the grunt-loving Tim Allen.) Visually stunning and very sweet, “Chimpanzee” isn’t the most memorable Disneynature movie, but that doesn’t mean you should skip it (by any stretch of the imagination).
10. 'Ghost of the Mountains' (2017)
The other spin-off movie that helps loosely form the “Born in China” in-franchise trilogy is “Ghost of the Mountains,” about the production team’s attempt to capture footage of the elusive snow leopard. Now, admittedly, this is a very cool subject matter and it’s certainly one of the more captivating elements of “Born in China,” and, yes, it’s super fascinating to see them try to find the leopards (they have to set up hidden cameras because they’re so sneaky) and engage with the local Tibetan people to help out, but also, this is basically a feature-length behind-the-scenes video which is … a lot. Also, just as mystifying as the cats themselves: why Disney hired action director Antoine Fuqua to do the narration.
9. 'Monkey Kingdom' (2015)
“Monkey Kingdom” isn’t quite as good as it should be, but it’s still pretty great. It’s also one of the few Disneynature titles to engage with the modern, human world, as it tells the story of a bunch of rascally monkeys that live in the jungles of Polonnaruwa, an ancient Sri Lankan kingdom that has become built-up and modern. Tina Fey’s wry commentary, though, does add a special dimension to the film, especially when she is discussing The Sisterhood, three female monkeys who decide how things are done. Also, who doesn’t love to see monkeys climbing around ancient ruins and causing problems for people in a modern city?
8. 'Born in China' (2017)
Here it is, the epicenter of the entire Chinese trilogy, “Born in China.” This film features four separate storylines, as it tracks a family of giant pandas, snow leopards (!), monkeys and, let’s just call them antelopes. The scope and scale of the film is incredibly impressive, and it’s wonderful to see such animals, who are so different, in the same film. (Usually, it’s just one animal at the center, like lions or tigers or bears – oh my!) It’s hard not to be equally invested in each of the storylines, and the soothing narration by John Krasinski feels like your emotionally generous uncle is reading you a bedtime story.
7. 'African Cats' (2011)
“African Cats” is the story of two different families; one made up of cheetahs, the other of lions. And in a way it feels more like a live action remake of “The Lion King” than the upcoming CGI-enhanced blockbuster. And for good reason, too, there’s just as much drama and texture as in that original animated classic, but with animals that are also hunting and getting hunted with far more regularity. Also, there might not be a better narrator/subject pairing than Samuel L. Jackson and “African Cats.” He makes even the goofiest remark seem downright weighty. Also: we would love an update on what happened to Fang. Anybody?
6. 'Earth' (2007)
“Earth” is beautiful and stunning, one of the most jaw-dropping, globe-spanning nature documentaries you’ll ever see. But also: it’s made up of a bunch of footage already used in the BBC series “Planet Earth,” so if you’re thinking that those elephants look familiar, well, you’ve probably seen them before. Not that it takes away from the power of “Earth,” exactly, but it’s just something that should be noted. Still, it is uniquely powerful and bold. Plus, it’s the only movie where you’ll hear James Earle Jones paraphrasing “Toy Story” while a lizard leaps between branches: “I wouldn’t call it flying so much as falling with style.”
5. 'Bears' (2014)
It cannot be overstated just how perfect John C. Reilly’s narration for “Bears” is – he so embodies the vibe of the bear that it’s almost uncanny. In fact, his narration probably elevates the movie to a level that it probably wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be on. The titular brown bears live really incredible lives, from the time their born to when they grow up, and this documentary wrings every ounce of drama out of that existence, from the threat of avalanches to other domineering bears. Still, everything mostly works out and all of the footage will melt your heart like the first thaw after winter.
4. 'Penguins' (2019)
Disneynature’s latest documentary is also one of its best. “Penguins” begins with footage of a young penguin named Steve, set to Latti LaBelle’s contribution to the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack, “Stir It Up,” which instantly makes it one of the greatest nature documentaries ever. From there, we follow the lifecycle of an Adélie penguin as he looks for a mate, has chicks, and vomits food into the mouth of his children. (Seriously. This happens a lot.) It’s really cute with moments of almost unbearable intensity (those seals!), which are amplified by Steve’s lovable goofiness. What a joy.
3. 'Oceans' (2009)
Weirder, wilder, and more pointedly political than many of the films that came after it, “Oceans” was another movie, like “Earth,” whose scope was seemingly endless, and for good reason: the ocean is really, really big. You will see animals in this movie that you have never seen before, while Pierce Brosnan’s velvety voice narrates everything with the same kind of professorial passion. But, of course, the ocean is very much in danger, and between the discussion of pollutants and very disturbing footage of fish being massacred, this one gets the point across: don’t mess with the ocean, you idiots.
2. 'Wings of Life' (2011)
In England, this movie was called “Hidden Beauty: A Love Story that Feeds Earth,” and it really is a love story, but just messy and bizarre as mother nature intended. This is basically about the process of pollination and the symbiotic relationship between insects and flowers. And it’s as odd as it is enchanting, aided largely by Meryl Streep’s narration, which forces her to say stuff like, “The scenes come from me, a bucket orchid” (and other things that are just as strange). This is a Disneynature as simple as it is surreal and it’s such a shame that this didn’t even have a theatrical release in America.
1. 'The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos' (2008)
Internationally, “Crimson Wing” was the very first Disneynature movie, although it didn’t hit America until two years later (arriving direct-to-home-video, no less). And it still stands as the very best Disneynature movie, a film of such profound beauty that you just have to stare at it in awe, disbelieving that the images could actually be real. This is the story of a group of lesser flamingos that converge every year in a lake in Tanzania. That might sound like a snooze but as the story unfolds, it becomes stranger and more captivating, from the way that, due to the rapid evaporation, an island of salt forms across the surface of the water, to the way that baby flamingos, wearing bell-bottoms made of calefied salt, can be left behind. It really is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before and is all the more powerful because it lacks a big star narrator. Instead, the story and the images simply wash over you.