Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish is an eye-opening documentary about animals in captivity, with a special focus on the orca Tilikum, who is currently kept at SeaWorld Orlando. The controversial creature is connected to the deaths of three people, including trainer Dawn Brancheau. Blackfish calls into question the safety measures, conditions, and treatment of captive animals, and makes a strong case for the orcas’ intelligence, awareness, and emotion. As moviegoers always on the lookout for compelling animal documentaries that supersede the humdrum nature shows — Blackfish in particular unfolds like a thriller — we’ve rounded up a list of other essential documentaries that call to the wild.
If we had it our way, Werner Herzog would direct, narrate, and star in every nature and animal documentary made from now until the end of time. He first wooed us with his “nature is vile and base” speech in 1982’s Burden of Dreams — the documentary chronicling the production of his epic, Fitzcarraldo. Herzog returned to the “chaos, hostility, and murder” found within nature in his bio-documentary on Timothy Treadwell — the man who lived with bears for 13 summers in Alaska, eventually killed and eaten by one in 2003. Treadwell was an eccentric and delusional character, troubled by his own disconnect from the human world. Herzog interprets the man’s attempts to bond with the bears without judgment. Grizzly Man isn’t a clear-cut animal documentary, but the footage of the bears is wonderful — much of it Treadwell’s, captured dangerously close to the hungry beasts. Perhaps more importantly, it studies the relationship (invented and hierarchical) between man and wild animal, concluding, “it is not so much a look at wild nature, as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature.”
Emperor Penguins make an annual journey during the cruel Antarctic winter. They trek upwards of 100 miles on the ice during the harshest conditions. It’s their breeding season. Once the female lays an egg, the male balances it on the tops of his feet. The monogamous couple trades turns foraging for food in the ocean and sheltering the newly hatched young from the cold. Morgan Freeman narrates the penguins’ story in the English-language version of the Academy Award-winning March of the Penguins. Director Luc Jacquet and crew spent more than a year battling the chilly weather, unable to spend more than a few hours outside at one time. March of the Penguins is a remarkable tale of survival, stunningly captured.
Few documentaries have divided critics as much as The Cove. Activists and dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry — who worked with television’s “Flipper,” but now defends the intelligent creatures, protesting captivity — infiltrated groups of Japanese dolphin hunters, secretly recording the controversial practice. A thrilling exposé to some and propaganda to others, The Cove is heartbreaking, insightful, and unforgettable.
Following various species of birds during their migratory journey, directors Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats captured breathtaking aerial footage of the winged creatures. The filmmakers domesticated many of the birds so they would be unafraid of the camera equipment — a point of contention for some viewers. Still, the technology employed allows us intimate access to a wondrous world. Bonus points for the lack of narration and score by Bruno Coulais, featuring Nick Cave among others.
Do yourself a favor and watch the BBC’s informative and awe-inspiring 11-episode documentary Planet Earth with narration by David Attenborough. Sigourney Weaver narrated the American cut, which is just fine, but no one can top the smooth sounds of the English broadcaster. The Emmy Award-winning series was shot by 40 different camera teams at 200 locations around the world over a span of five years. We’re treated to rare views of endangered species and the unsanitized plight of several animals struggling for survival. A companion film was commissioned, Earth, which is beautiful, but skims over some of the more in-depth details.
Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou captured the hidden world of insects bustling beneath our feet. The 1996 documentary Microcosmos reveals the sex, violence, and beauty found within their universe. The use of slow motion, extreme close-ups, and time-lapse photography makes the delicate insects seem larger than life — and we quickly learn that their size has no bearing on their resourcefulness and resilience. Cinematographer Thierry Machado captures the alien beauty of the minuscule creatures. You’ll never look at a meadow or pond the same way again.
The 2003 documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a charming story about a down-and-out San Francisco musician, Mark Bittner, who forms a bond with a flock of feral parrots. Their relationship changes his life. Like Grizzly Man, the focus tends to be on the human at the center of the story, but it’s through Mark that we learn about the colorful birds’ various “personalities” and habits. There are also some fantastic shots of the city itself. A heartwarming aside: director Judy Irving and Mark fell in love during the making of the movie and married in 2006.
The Druids were considered the rock stars of wolfdom. The most famous grey wolves in Yellowstone Park, and at one time the largest pack in history, the Druids were reintroduced into the national park in 1996 where they reigned supreme for 14 years. Emmy Award-winning wildlife cinematographer Bob Landis shared their story in the 2007 PBS Nature series. In the Valley of the Wolves details the start of their fall as they age (the proud, fierce alpha mates still have a lot of fight left in them) and contend with new packs infringing upon their territory. Gorgeous scenery and cinematography softens the emotional turmoil felt when the pack’s struggles overwhelm them.
Here’s another incident of David Attenborough versus an American — this time Oprah. Go with the British or Canadian version he narrated if you can find it. Life is another fantastic BBC series (10 episodes long) about creatures great and small and how they survive on this crazy planet of ours. “Our planet may be home to 30 million different kinds of animals and plants, each individual locked in its own lifelong fight for survival. Everywhere you look, on land or in the ocean, there are extraordinary examples of the lengths living things go to stay alive,” Attenborough tells us. Life is gorgeous.
Sweetgrass is a beautiful slice of life documentary that invites us to follow sheepherders as they raise the wooly animals and eventually lead them on a pilgrimage across the mountains. More animal and nature documentaries could take a cue from Sweetgrass‘ minimalism. The lack of narration and score allows us to truly enter into a world of bygone, pastoral rituals.