All 13 Disneynature Movies, Ranked
When was the last time you went to a zoo? I don't mean a Trader Joe's at 5pm. I mean an actual park with kids holding balloons spilling Icees everywhere. It's still good to get out of the house, but we have to stop The Big Lie: most of the time the big ticket animals are asleep.
The lions, the tigers, the bears? Zzzz, zzzz, and more zzzz. We all love animals, but sometimes they don't love us back. This is where nature films (and, increasingly, streamable nature television shows, oftentimes narrated by David Attenborough) come in. Not only do we get up close with creatures great and small, the power of editing means we get to see them when they are doing something.
For gobsmacking imagery stitched together in a way that is equal parts learning and entertainment, there is no outlet more consistent than Disneynature, celebrating its 10-year anniversary with Penguins. By now there's a formula: well-known narrator, an underdog "protagonist" anthropomorphized to just the point of ridiculousness and an erasure of violence. "Red in tooth and claw" these movies aren't, but there are moments of stress amidst all the fuzzy levity. Critics who frown at the "Disneyfication" seem to forget: These movies are for kids and stoners. Lighten up.
Since Earth, the first Disneynature film, released a decade ago, the independent Disney unit usually puts out something new each Earth Day. The publicists are happy to boast that of the eight top grossing theatrically released nature docs, seven are theirs. (Nothing's every going to catch 2005's lightning-in-a-bottle juggernaut March of the Penguins.) A portion of the first week's receipts are forwarded to an environmental charity, which means you can feel good about driving to the theater instead of taking the bus. Other releases have gone straight to streaming or, in the ancient days of a decade ago, home video.
For some reason, the team nixed the Natalie Portman-narrated Dolphins last year, only a week before its release. (A version was released in France under the name Blue.) As such I've never seen it, but I've gobbled-up everything else they've put out. (But alllow me to give a shout-out to the greatest theatrically-released nature doc of my life, Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou's insectophilic Microcosmos.)
Disneynature's latest is Penguins, narrated by Ed Helms and co-directed by Disneynature mainstay Alastair Fothergill with Jeff Wilson. It's absolutely adorable (because it's about penguins!) and features needle-drops by both REO Speedwagon and Whitesnake. But where does it fit in with the rest of the series? Grab some extra camera batteries, put on some all-weather gear and let's hike through the ranking.
13. Growing Up Wild
Director: Mark Linfield and Keith Scholey
Narrator: Daveed Diggs
There is no doubt that capturing Disneynature footage is an extraordinary accomplishment. So it is understandable that all involved would want to take a victory lap. Growing Up Wild, however, is self-congratulations on an epic scale. This is a collection of clips from four other movies: African Cats, Monkey Kingdom, Chimpanzee and Bears. Each of these films already had an emphasis on a newborn, but this really lasers in on the "growing up" aspect, eschewing a lot of the drama and becoming something of a naturalist supercut. It's adorable and awe-inspiring, don't get me wrong, but it's only worth watching if you don't have access to the other films.
12. Expedition China
Director: Ben Wallis
Narrator: Maggie Q
Disneynature's Born In China was a massive undertaking. (Perhaps just as striking than any nature imagery would be the international lawyers figuring out how to make this production fly.) It was such big deal that there are not one, but two feature-length behind-the-scenes movies. We're not talking DVD extras, we're talking movies on their own release schedule you can find on Netflix. They are both mesmerizing, but come on. Either put it in the movie or leave it out. Expedition China was the second of the two, so you can call it the trim bin within the trim bin. You don't even get any pandas until the 34 minute mark.
11. Ghosts of the Mountain
Director: Ben Wallis
Narrator: Antoine Fuqua
B-roll from the making of Born in China, but at least this one is more focused that Expedition China. There's even a little bit of a story here. Born in China (which earns its place much higher on this list) follows a number of amazing, seldom seen creatures. Among them, the snow leopard. Well, it turns out it really isn't easy catching snow leopards on film. The climate is harsh, the oxygen is thin and the lens caps are accidentally left on. (OK, not that last part.) This is a decent documentary in its own right, but it's more about moviemaking than about gorgeous animals.
10. The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos
Director: Matthew Aeberhard and Leander Ward
Narrator: Mariella Frostrup
The imagery in this movie is beautiful, but there comes a point where you may feel a little stuck. Seventy-four minutes is a long time to dwell on flamingos. They don't do too much but stand on one leg and suck up krill. Oh, now I sound like a crank. The shots of countless pink birds on Lake Natron in Tanzania are all a knockout, especially when they start doing their balletic dances. This movie is beautiful. Quick reminder: there are no bad Disneynature films.
Director: Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfeld
Narrator: James Earl Jones
Hold up, how is Earth not at the top of the list? you ask. Well, I'll tell you. This is a hodgepodge movie. It's a mix of footage from the pre-existing BBC miniseries Planet Earth (yeah, that's right, the O.G. of the New Wave of British Nature Documentaries) plus some alternates of classic shots. Also, it's too much. It tries to tell the story of everything in just 90 minutes -- a trip from the Arctic in January to the South Pole in December. Just a little compressed, you might say. For God's sake, my nephew can babble about Pokémon for twice that long. While the images are one gut punch after the other, the completist in me wants to cross my arms at this and demand all of Planet Earth get a theatrical release.
Director: Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud
Narrator: Pierce Brosnan
Another big mama like Earth but a little more focused. Just the wet stuff, please! This early Disneynature film is another example of them not yet nailing the formula. Made in conjunction with the Census of Marine Life, this is a very serious, science-museum type movie. There's even a longer French cut out there that includes lots of big fish gobbling up little fish in particularly bloody ways. That said, there are shots in this movie unlike anything you've ever seen. There's a Florida amphibian looking us right in the eye as a Cape Canaveral rocket launches behind it, what looks like a knife fight between a hermit crab and a mantis shrimp (cut with very cinematic shot-reverse shot) and the mother of all money shots, a great white shark leaping skyward with its enormous jaws open wide. There's not much that's cute here, but it is, in the original meaning of the word, awesome.
7. African Cats
Director: Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey
Narrator: Samuel L. Jackson
Now we start to get into what Disneynature does best: squeezing a narrative out of the most amazing nature photography you've ever seen. This isn't to suggest the filmmakers are manipulating events or getting overly tricky with the editing, but when you start naming the “characters” this represents a red line that some purists won't cross. Well, those purists can take a hike. These stories are riveting. A lion pride led by a male with one large tooth (named Fang) has to deal with a dangerous interloper, causing much stress to a lioness named Layla caring for her newborn, Mara. Meanwhile, down the block, a "single mother" cheetah, Sita, is raising a family of five. They hunt, they play, they act just like your housecat except the smallest of their claws is like a machete that could kill you in half-a-second. Wildebeests, crocodiles and giraffes co-star.
6. Born in China
Director: Lu Chuan
Narrator: John Krasinski
Pound for pound, Born in China has the biggest "wow" factor of all of these. African and Arctic vistas are a little more common to nature films, I feel, than the diverse climates and topography of China. (I didn't study the hastily flashed map in the early shots, but I think some of the creatures are also quite commonly found in Tibet, but let's not open that can of antelope.) The film spans its gaze upon multiple species, including red-crowned crane, golden snub-nosed monkeys and snow leopards, but you and I both know what we came here for: pandas. Bamboo-loving, roly-poly Ya Ya, a first time mother, is extremely camera-ready, and when she's with her cub Mei Mei you may simply need to breathe into a paper bag to curtail the cuteness. There's some of the usual dangers from predators (and talk about poaching), but this narrated tale sticks mainly to factoids and bad jokes.
Director: Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson
Narrator: Ed Helms
"Meet Steve!" Ed Helms announces as our silly little guy waddles across the screen. Far-and-away the silliest entry in the Disneynature canon, Penguins follows a good-natured runt doing his best to collect stones for a nest, dive for fish, woo a mate and stay out of trouble. There are times where the anthropomorphized narrative feels a little too forced, like Steve's mating set to "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore" or his "arguments" with other penguins perched during egg-hatching season. Still, the odd, instinctual behavior unique to these funny, waiter-looking creatures is fascinating. Guest appearances from enormous, stinky elephant seals is a bug plus, too.
Director: Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey
Narrator: John C. Reilly
The perfect marriage of artist and repertoire. Who better to voice the tale of the Alaskan brown bear than John C. Reilly? Like penguins and their drastic egg-hatching struggles, the concept of “a bear hibernating for winter” is something we've always heard about, but to see it is something else. Mama bear Sky and her two cubs, Scout and Amber, head down from the top of a snowy mountain down to the streams to store up some grub. There's a ticking clock (they need nourishment right now) as well as trouble from wolves and rival bears. Bears is by-and-large a warm, fuzzy goof but there are some genuine moments of peril. I actually got faked out and thought "wow, Disney's gonna kill this little bear right here on the rocks, aren't they?" They didn't. But what they did show was something I never knew I needed to see: a super slo-mo montage of a big nuzzly bear chomping down on a smorgasbord of floppy salmon. Hilarious!
3. Wings of Life
Director: Louie Schwartzberg
Narrator: Meryl Streep
Alert! We have an outlier! This one does not have anything cute and fuzzy in it, unless you count caterpillars. And it isn't about a silly lil creature whose toil we can view through a human lens. Despite Netflix's affiliate image of a butterfly, this movie is about pollen. (The French title is just Pollen and the British is Hidden Beauty: A Love Story That Feeds the Earth. There was definitely some creative marketing done for the American audience.) Meryl Streep narrates from the point of view of a flower, but not a specific one: She's in the Panamanian rain forest, the Mexican desert, the American midwest or, even weirder, thousands of years ago. She looks on as humans discover the concept of agriculture. Heavy. This is the most "science museum" of the Disneynature movies (and, at times, calming to the point of eradicating the need for Ambien) but it's the high-resolution, supersonic speed cameras with NASA-like lenses seal the deal. Watch seeds turn into strawberries in time-lapse, see iridescent hummingbirds in extreme slow motion, really grok a monarch butterfly or honeybee. This is one of the most far out things on Netflix right now, and ready for your late night, post-party stream.
2. Monkey Kingdom
Director: Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield
Narrator: Tina Fey
Monkey Kingdom is a triumph for a number of reasons, but part of it is due to its specificity. It follows a clan of macaque monkeys in Sri Lanka who live in and around a number of abandoned temples. Even before we get to the little troublemaking simians the photography is absolutely gorgeous. This particular type of monkey has a unique social structure, and when our heroine monkey, Maya, finds herself in the family way, Tina Fey's just-sarcastic-enough voice over walks us through the peculiarities of monkey culture. There's a great action-adventure sequence when our gang raids the nearby town, and while these scenes had to have been somewhat staged or recreated, it's still incredible to watch our guys cause mischief for those dumb humans.
Director: Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield
Narrator: Tim Allen
Monkey Kingdom might be the most enjoyable Disneynature film, but Chimpanzee is far-and-away the best. The filmmakers lucked into an actual story, and came away with evidence proving some long-held theories of chimp society. Even Jane Goodall came out to stump for this movie at the time. We follow Oscar from the time he's a goofy toddler, learning how to open nuts by bashing it with a stick. (Warning: Tim Allen will make some of his hoo-hoo noises while narrating. Just deal with it.) Then there's a raid from a rival chimps, led by a mean-looking jerk with a scar on his face. Central casting! Oscar's mother, in classic Disney form, is killed. (Off-screen.) Oscar is still too young to survive without a nurturing parent to guide him, but the other mothers in the clan can't accept the burden; they have their own children to deal with. Finally, the old-timer Freddie, the alpha male of the herd, takes him in. This altruistic behavior amongst chimpanzees had been hypothesized, but never captured on film before. And when little Oscar starts mimicking the old man (chimp see, chimp do!) it's quite possibly the most adorable thing you'll ever see. This summer we'll see Disney's motion-captured, computer-generated animals in The Lion King and I'm sure it will be great, especially when Beyoncé sings. But it's good to know, even through the Disney lens, that we've got access to the real thing, too.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Streamail for more entertainment, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.