Nature Documentaries for Small Screens

Appreciate the grandeur of the planet with these stellar movies.

These four splendid nature documentaries revel in the wonders of the sky above and the land and sea below. They immerse us in eye-popping sights and ear-tingling sounds. And they make us feel that we’re part of nature, not mere bystanders.

Koko, a Talking Gorilla (1978)

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened,” wrote Anatole France. By that standard, Francine “Penny” Patterson is among the most awakened people on the planet.

In 1972, this Stanford-educated animal psychologist started teaching a year-old lowland gorilla named Koko a modified version of American Sign Language (a feat that had been achieved with chimpanzees). Before long, teacher and student shared animated conversations.

Patterson also spoke English to Koko, who responded with ASL and eloquent body language. As one philosopher had mused, an animal’s eyes alone “have the power to speak a great language.” With all these tools, Patterson forged a sisterly and motherly bond.

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.

Director Barbet Schroeder filmed them when Patterson was establishing the Gorilla Foundation in 1976. The film’s signature scenes blur the line between pet and adopted child, or pupil and buddy. Schroeder treats ape and scientist as stars of a real-life human and animal dramedy.

In an accompanying special feature streaming on FilmStruck, Schroeder compares filming Koko to working with Marlon Brando or Greta Garbo. He says she acted for the camera, could sense when it was running, and even learned to switch it on and off.

Schroeder notes that poaching and habitat loss have ruined lowland gorillas’ chances for survival in the wild. Organizations like Patterson’s and movies like this are making the most of their lives now and fighting the good fight.

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Winged Migration (2001)

Call it “flock and awe.” With exhilarating intimacy, this movie brings us inside the waves of migrating birds that soar from north to south every fall and back again in spring. The camera often travels right next to them, their wings flapping with powerhouse grace, muscles magically holding their bodies in position. They take off, fly, and touch down with limbs moving like dancers’ legs, not landing gear.

Marvels abound. Witness one species walk on water. Another does an outrageous courtship dance, the male puffing out his chest like a hot-air balloon and spreading a tail as spiky as a porcupine’s.

The film crisscrosses the globe as it tracks 70 avian varieties.

There’s an extra kick to seeing everyday avian miracles up close on the ultraprecise screens of an iPad or iPhone. Instead of being overwhelmed, you grasp the overall drama immediately. Then you zero in on the fine detail of four robin nestlings stretching their yellow mouths wide apart to feed from their mother’s beak, or on a robin chick battering its way blind out of its egg.

The film crisscrosses the globe as it tracks 70 avian varieties, including the glorious red-breasted goose. One gets slimed in a grim industrial park, but director Jacques Perrin concentrates on wonder. “Watching this movie,” he said, “you can dream with open eyes.”

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Deep Blue (2003)

This lyrical assemblage of ocean footage, originally shot for BBC’s Blue Planet, contains images wilder than any 1960s trip movie. The filmmakers designed unique, pressure-resistant submersibles to plunge cameras to the ocean floor, then down a black abyss beneath the ocean floor toward Earth’s core.

They capture mind-blowing creatures like the dumbo octopus—a large-eyed, semitranslucent octopod with webbing between its legs and elephant-like “ears” (actually fins) flapping out from the sides of its head. Or the fanged, shovel-mouthed hairy anglerfish, so fearsomely prickly you can tell at first sight why it’s known as “the black sea devil.”

Astonishingly, these denizens of the deep illuminate themselves. One resembles a disco version of Cinderella’s carriage, rigged with flashing multicolored lights. Others are like mini-squids with psychedelic tentacles. Hallucinogenic visions like these, hyperreal yet otherworldly, deserve the vibrant nuance of a Super Retina display.

The film amazes even when it touches on familiar life-forms. Like sleek figure skaters, the dolphins perform quintuple loops, flips, and lutzes as they twirl out of the water. In a vain attempt to fend off predators, thousands of sardines band together and form swirling undersea tornadoes.

This film sates our appetites for thrills, sensuality, and grandeur, and leaves our boggled brains hungering to know more.

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March of the Penguins (2004)

In this dazzling and culturally influential movie, emperor penguins—the tallest and most imposing of their species—cross Antarctica’s horizons and bivouac as valiantly as John Ford’s cavalry soldiers did on the American frontier.

The birds’ long white torsos and gold-flecked crowns give them a unisex glamour. But these animals are heroes of family life. They’re serial monogamists, sticking with a mate for just one year. During that time, couples display a care for each other and their chick that you rarely see in other species.

After their weeks-long 70-mile trek, they reach the firm ice of their ancestral breeding grounds. Who knew a penguin’s body was custom-made for vertical spooning? They bond with a song, then stand chest to chest and beak to beak—lovebirds as well as seabirds.

Once the female lays her egg, the couple choreographs its transfer from her protective pouch to his. The male takes over incubation, withstanding near-starvation while the mother re-travels the arduous route seaward to get food. (Given the reversal of conventional roles, it’s not surprising the filmmakers returned 10 years later to focus on a father and son in March of the Penguins 2: The Next Step, streaming on Hulu.)

To protect themselves from merciless blizzards with 90-mile-per-hour winds and minus-100-degree temperatures, the males mass together where they stand, forming a seamless, rippling gray-white blanket over ice.

It takes a rookery to raise a chick.

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