Tired of the prequels, sequels, reboots and remakes currently dominating the big screen? If you’ve just about had enough of lycra suits and fictional universes, it might be time for a documentary binge!

Below you have a hand-picked selection of wildlife and nature films with all the thrills, pains and delights of any blockbuster. There’s plenty magnificence and tragedy to marvel at on our planet, without the need to invent fantasy worlds.

In compiling this list, two categories of documentary emerged. The first consists of breathtakingly beautiful footage, which celebrates the wonder of life, nature and animal behaviour. The second category of documentary aims to highlight the invariable damage humans cause whenever we interfere with nature.

Sometimes we want to be amazed by natural beauty. Sometimes we want to be challenged by harsh realities. Here you have it all – enjoy the show!

Microcosmos (1996)

This French documentary, made by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou, is an intimate look at the lives of insects and other small invertebrates.The original title was Microcosmos: Le peuple de l’herbe (Microcosmos: The grass people) and it’s an 80 minute journey through this miniature world.

The exquisite photography and dramatic score puts these often overlooked creatures at centre stage. What could be more French than two snails in a romantic embrace?

Darwin’s Nightmare (2004)

Set on the banks of Tanzania’s Lake Victoria, Darwin’s Nightmare should come with a warning. This hard-hitting reportage reveals a grim world of exhaustive fishing, local poverty and the arms trade.

The investigation revolves around the ecology and economy of the lake. We watch on as millions of Nile perch, an alien species introduced in the 1960s, are flown out in a Russian cargo plane, leaving the exploited local population with scraps. We hear from the pilots, factory owners, prostitutes and street children. But nobody is willing to say what the Russian plane is bringing in to Tanzania.

Gripping and grotesque, this is a story that needed to be told.

March of the Penguins (2005)

After the horrors of Lake Victoria, you might want to head down to the South Pole for something altogether more joyful! March of the Penguins – narrated by Morgan Freeman and his trademark, soft tones – is a feel-good story of epic proportions. It follows a group of emperor penguins on their Antarctic journey, across frozen tundra, to traditional breeding grounds.

On arrival, their struggle in the face of adversity continues. Once the chick is hatched, the mother penguin delicately transfers it over to its father, allowing her to retrace her steps to sea, nourish herself and bring back food to their newborn chick.

Will all their hard work pay off?

Samsara (2011)

Samsara is a Sanskrit word meaning “the ever turning wheel of life”, a concept which forms the basis of this spectacular documentary by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson. Samsara dispenses with dialogue and narration, but combines images and music, giving the film a uniquely meditative quality.

It transports the viewer across borders, exploring the sacred temples, industrialised areas and natural wonders of 25 different countries. It’s not strictly a nature documentary, but deserves its place on this list all the same. As with other films listed here, it documents the behaviour and customs of a particular species – humans.

Virunga (2014)

With Virunga, written and directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, we return to the second category. It’s an uncompromising mix of investigative journalism and wildlife documentary.

“In the forested depths of eastern Congo lies Virunga National Park, one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth and home to the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas.”

In this inspirational true story, we follow a small team of park rangers and witness their efforts to protect the home of the last mountain gorillas from armed militias poachers.

Will they and the mountain gorillas under their protection survive the latest conflict?

Blue Planet II (2017)

Now, the list wouldn’t be complete without some mention of a BBC Natural History Unit production. Along with broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough, they have led the way in nature documentaries for the past few decades. Since the ‘Life on Earth’ series back in 1979, their productions have been a bi-name for quality and innovation.

Attenborough’s latest series Blue Planet II came out last year and was a huge success. Why is it so popular? Well, it has it all – fast-paced action sequences, fascinating insights and fresh discoveries. Not only that, but they take you behind the scenes and explain their production methods. And, importantly, there’s a clear environmental message.

There are seven episodes in the series (with one more to come in 2018), so let the binge-watching commence!

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James is a freelance language professional based in Barcelona. Besides writing articles for Zoo Portraits, he writes about education and teaches English as a foreign language in businesses, universities and other institutions around the city.


  1. Hi, I’m seeking to identify a ‘nature / natural world / wild life’ TV documentary ‘film / video’ which shows – as a small segment – ‘Three Baby Owls’ ‘leaving their nest’ / ‘learning to fly’. I saw this about two months ago.

    The essence of the ‘Three Baby Owls’ Film / Video (presentation) “captured” how the ‘Three Baby Owls – in sequence – made their 1st attempts to “learn to fly”. The commentary stated that the Parent Owls gradually ‘cut back on feeding’ the Baby Owls so as to encourage them to ‘venture forth into the great big world’ beyond their nest.

    I would appreciate if you could ‘identify’ the specific ‘Film / Video’ showing the above.

    Kind Regards
    Dan (Daniel Fogarty)


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