Animals! They’re just like us. They care for their young. Make friends. Find life partners. They laugh, play and work hard. Sometimes they fight and make enemies. They strive to provide their children with a better life. That’s the inherent premise in all the Disneynature documentaries, which began in 2008 with The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos. This Friday, on Earth Day, Disneynature’s latest offering, Polar Bear, premieres on Disney+.
All the documentaries have inherent drama (which we promise not to spoil) and take certain narrative conceits (we are pretty sure the animals don’t tell the filmmakers their names). Almost all feature a famous narrator and end with footage of how the filmmakers achieved these up-close and positively breathtaking shots. The films are all pretty fabulous, but if you’ve never watched them, you need a place to start. That’s where we come in. [Note: Earth, from 2007, is unavailable to stream and absent from Disney+. It may join this list in the future.]
Here are the Disneynature documentaries, ranked:
Narrator: Mariella Frostrup
It’s hard to be first, and The Crimson Wing definitely feels the weight of being the first Disneynature doc. This was before they latched onto the strategy of getting a famous name to give voice to the films or the idea that giving viewers a main character early on is the best way to draw them into the story. The still-fine movie follows a flock of flamingos in Northern Tanzania as they give birth to chicks and try to protect them from both the drought and other species.
Narrator: Pierce Brosnan
The ocean ecosystem is on full display as Oceans takes viewers to the bottom of the sea and sees everything from the crab who doesn’t take kindly to trespassers to the blue whale, the largest animal in the history of the world. While the shots are gorgeous, the movie’s pace is a bit plodding as it follows the slow-moving migration of the humpback whales for feeding season.
Narrator: Meryl Streep
At the beginning of Wings of Life, Meryl Streep tells us that “good things come in small packages.” The film follows flowers, butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and bats because these are the little things “that actually runs the vast machinery of life.” One of the more lackadaisical of the films, it’s also one of the hardest to connect to because it lacks a main protagonist for viewers to root for.
Narrator: John Krasinski
Born in China follows four animals native to the country—pandas, antelopes, monkeys and snow leopards—through the four seasons. Did you know pandas eat up to 40 pounds of bamboo a day? Or that the red panda, my personal favorite, is actually closer to a raccoon than a panda? EEEK! It’s a fascinating and beautiful look at the animals, but viewers may feel less of personal connection given the breadth of information covered.
Narrator: Samuel L. Jackson
African Cats intimately takes viewers inside the world of lions and cheetahs by following two families. Laya, her cub Mara and the Fang, the father of all of the lion cubs, are part of a pride. A Cheetah named Sita lives alone until the birth of her five cubs. Fun facts are dropped along the way. For instance, cheetahs are fast but have no endurance. Who knew? Although lions and cheetahs are among the most powerful animals in Kenya, they too must hunt for food and endure the constant struggle to stay away from danger.
Narrator: Tim Allen
This is perhaps the most devastating of the Disneynature docs. At the beginning of Chimpanzee, Tim Allen tells viewers the movie is full of “drama, sadness and joy.” He’s not kidding. The movie follows Oscar, who, “like most kids, hates bedtime,” but loves to play with his parents. When tragedy strikes, Oscar must learn to fend for himself. But fret not, the movie has a happy ending.
Narrator: Tina Fey
Did you know that monkeys had a class system? I certainly didn’t before watching Monkey Kingdom, which follows the monkeys that populate an abandoned city in Sri Lanka. Social rank determines what you can eat, where you eat, who you socialize with and where you live. The monkey gymnastics are on fascinating display as Maya, who starts off the movie at the bottom of the social structure, protects her child and works to make sure her offspring doesn’t have to struggle like she did.
Narrator: Natalie Portman
Every parent will be able to relate to Dolphin Reef, which follows a three-year-old bottlenose dolphin named Echo who, much to his frustrated mother’s chagrin, would rather frolic in the ocean with his shell than learn how to feed and protect himself. At the beginning of the movie, Portman tells us it will feature “characters as fantastical as any fairytale” and she’s not wrong. The dolphins’ acrobatics are amazing and the spectacular views positively magnificent. Diving with Dolphins, the companion doc, takes viewers behind the scenes as the filmmakers went deep into the ocean.
Narrator: Meghan Markle
Featuring the narration of one of the world’s most famous celebrities, Elephant follows 40-year-old elephant Shani and her one-year-old son Jomo, one of the youngest of the herd. They are the last elephants on Earth still able to make the epic migration from the Kalahari Dessert to Zambezi River. Along the way there are confrontation with hyenas, lions and rival herds, but also time for play and bonding. Meghan Markle’s joyful, bemused narration immediately draw the viewer in to Shani and Jomo’s journey.
Narrator: John C. Reilly
Bears follows Sky and her two cubs through the cubs’ “incredible” first year of life. The film is filled with drama from the search for food (salmons are ever elusive) to the wolf versus cub stand-offs. Reilly’s narration can get a little goofy—like when he says lines like “Salmon is my new favorite food. Let’s never have mussels again”—but Bears brings viewers right inside the bears’ race against time to store enough food (up to 90 pounds of food a day!) so they can hibernate for winter.
2. Polar Bear
Narrator: Catherine Keener
A bit of recency bias may be at work here, but Polar Bear is absolutely breathtaking. Keener’s narration follows a baby polar bear from birth to when she becomes a mother of her own. That means the documentary followed the “ice bear,” as she calls herself, for years through tragic loss, the panicked hunt for food, devastating isolation and eventual joy as she has a family of her own. Climate change and its effect on the Arctic is the ever-present backdrop to the movie. The end tells us “the Arctic could be ice-free by 2040,” and Polar Bear will definitely inspire you to get involved in the climate’s dire situation.
Narrator: Ed Helms
Penguins follows male Adelie penguins on their 100-mile journey to build a suitable nest in Antarctica for mating season and focuses on Steve, who trails behind his fellow penguins. Once the eggs are laid, parents protect their eggs from the harshest winter on our planet, including a temperature with a -40-degree wind-chill factor. The film tops the list due to its stellar soundtrack (Did you think you’d be hearing Whitesnake in a Disneynature doc?) and the fact that it features the most adorable animals (Is anything cuter than a baby penguin?). If you want to see how the movie got made, check out Penguins: Life on the Edge which follows the filmmakers’ arduous journey to complete this labor of love.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).