Earth Day is Wednesday, April 22. This year, we may not be able to celebrate under favorite trees or beloved beaches, but even if directly communing with nature isn’t possible, we can celebrate the occasion by streaming a nonfiction film or series that captures earth’s diversity and beauty, and teaches you something you didn’t know about your home planet.
Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (2020; free to stream for AppleTV+ subscribers)
Targeted toward young viewers, this animated short film revolves around a seven-year-old (voice of Jacob Tremblay), who spends Earth Day learning all about the planet; Chris O’Dowd and Ruth Negga voice his parents, while Meryl Streep provides narration.
Elephant (2020; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
Speaking of very illustrious narrators: retired duchess Meghan Markle returns to her former career as an actor to provide the voice-over on Elephant, the latest documentary feature from Disneynature, in which a herd of African elephants migrate through southern Africa toward fertile grassland.
The Biggest Little Farm (2018; free to stream for Hulu subscribers)
Emmy-winning director John Chester is both behind the camera and in front of it as he documents the process of founding a farm with his wife, Molly Chester. Though their aim is to follow the principles of natural biodiversity, environmental setbacks and their own inexperience challenge them through their early days.
One Strange Rock (2018; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
How is it that earth is uniquely suited to support so many different kinds of life? Who better to explain, in this documentary series, than eight people who have looked at the planet from a great distance: a squad of astronauts including Chris Hadfield, Mae Jemison, Leland Melvin, and Peggy Whitson. Will Smith hosts (because…he was in Independence Day, maybe?).
Jane (2017; free to stream for Hulu subscribers)
While we now know her as Dame Jane Goodall, one of the world’s foremost primatologists, Brett Morgen’s biographical documentary takes viewers back to the start of her career, when she was one of few women in the world of chimpanzee research and challenged dogma in the field with her unconventional ideas.
Paradise Islands (2017; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
National Geographic’s documentary series takes a close look at the islands between Asia and Australia, which researchers have long valued for their extraordinary biodiversity. Episodes explore the islands’ large mammals (like tigers, elephants, and rhinos), the many creatures that live around the area’s reefs, and much more.
Born in China (2017; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
John Krasinski narrates this Disneynature documentary about Chinese wildlife, focusing on three families—snow leopard, golden snub-nosed monkey, and giant panda—as they hunt, evade predators, and learn independence.
America’s National Parks (2015; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
Not even the most devoted explorers of the National Park System will get close to the views documented in this series, which focuses on several of the most beloved sites, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains, Gates of the Arctic, and (of course) the Grand Canyon.
The Salt of the Earth (2015; available to stream for rent or purchase on Amazon)
Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado codirected this documentary feature film, which showcased the life and work of Salgado’s father, the photographer Sebastião Salgado, who had a particular interest in the ways people interact with natural environments, and whose training as an economist also informed his portrayal of the ways capitalism exploits both people and the natural world.
Bears (2014; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
Disneynature’s 2014 release, narrated by John C. Reilly, is set in the U.S. among a family of brown bears in the Alaskan mountains. After a mother bear gives birth to two cubs, she prepares them to leave the den in the spring, and to move to the valley for the summer, where they meet unfamiliar bears, who may also be unfriendly.
Planet Ocean (2012; free to stream for Starz subscribers)
Aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand serves as both cinematographer and codirector, with Michael Pitiot, on this documentary feature film about ocean life—organisms’ interrelationships with one another, and the ways human actions impinge upon them.
Chimpanzee (2012; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
Tim Allen serves as narrator for this Disneynature film about a chimpanzee dubbed Oscar by the filmmakers. Orphaned in an African forest, Oscar is rejected by all the older females in his troop; however, an older alpha male named Freddy may be the unlikely adoptive parent Oscar needs.
African Cats (2011; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
As narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this Disneynature film portrays the difficulties of life on the savanna even for fierce predators: lions and cheetahs. Attacks by hyenas, injuries from zebras, and the necessity of fording a river full of crocodiles are just a few of the perils faced by the families at the center of the story.
Great Migrations (2010; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
This series, narrated by Alec Baldwin, documents seasonal migrations of animal species of all kinds and in all manner of ecosystems, from Christmas Island crabs to Wyoming antelopes and everything in between.
Journey to Shark Eden (2010; free to stream for Disney+ subscribers)
National Geographic explorer-in-residence Enric Sala is the viewer’s guide on this trip to five islands in the South Pacific, where sharks live around some of the planet’s most pristine coral reefs.
Planet Earth (2006; available to stream for purchase on iTunes)
One of the most beloved and visually stunning nature documentary series ever, Planet Earth takes the viewer into the world’s most remote and forbidding places: mountains, caves, deserts, ice worlds, and more. If you somehow haven’t already seen this one, treat yourself.