“Black Friday,” “Cyber Monday,” and “Small Business Saturday” may be over, but you probably still have some names to check off on your gift-giving list. Below are my picks for the top five nature DVDs of all time (at least up until this point). Let them delight you and your family with the sights, sounds, and words of nature and help inspire a fascination for the outdoors.
Number 1: Planet Earth
When this British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) series premiered in the United Kingdom in 2006, it was the first of its kind. The most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC (eleven episodes at roughly $2 million each), Planet Earth was also the first to be filmed in high definition. Revolutionary techniques were used in its groundbreaking photography. In one of its famous scenes, now known as the “shark shot,” a great white shark in super-slow-motion leaps from the ocean to feed on a seal. An ultra-high speed camera, normally used to film automobile test crashes, translated the real-time, one-second event into a forty-second display of pure power, amazing grace, and jaw-dropping excitement. The film crew spent an entire month at sea to capture this one second on film. Planet Earth is, perhaps, the gold standard of nature programs.
The series was first shown in the United States on the Discovery Channel in 2007. David Attenborough narrated the BBC version but was replaced by Sigourney Weaver for the Discovery Channel’s U.S. version. When purchasing your DVD set, I recommend the BBC version.
The 2009 follow-up program to Planet Earth is Nature’s Most Amazing Events. Produced by the BBC in cooperation with the Discovery Channel and again narrated by David Attenborough, this series focuses on nature’s great events that are triggered by the seasons, such as the flooding of the Okavango Delta in Africa — which sets in motion the Great Migration of wildebeest and zebra — and the gathering of British Columbia’s grizzly bears, brought about by the Great Salmon Run. The rare footage of the mythical-looking narwhals and the great summer melt of ice in the Arctic is a scene you are unlikely to ever forget.
Number 2: Winged Migration
Although released in the United States five years before Planet Earth, Winged Migration still holds its own for innovative nature-film techniques, especially in capturing migrating birds. With almost no computer-generated effects, you’ll do some serious nature traveling while watching this film — as you glide right alongside the birds. You’ll soar over forty countries on seven continents during all four seasons. The cameras take you to places such as Antarctica, Greenland’s glaciers, the Himalayas, the Great Wall of China, the dunes of Sahara, and the Amazon. You’ll “become one” with a flock of Canada geese over Monument Valley, bald eagles in the Grand Canyon, storks in Normandy, and albatross in New Zealand.
In fact, one famous film sequence follows a tern — seen on cloud level above the Earth — as it migrates for thousands of miles. At one point, the camera pans more than 180 degrees around it. Balloons, helicopters, remote-controlled gliders, and ultra-light motorized aircraft were used to create this and the film’s other amazing shots.
Winged Migration was an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominee for Best Documentary Feature Film of 2002. Although it didn’t garner the prize — director Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine took home the Oscar that year — Winged Migration’s ninety-eight minutes of bird beauty is so compelling that if you’ve never dreamed you could fly, you soon will.
Number 3: Whale Rider
A combination of creation myth, the natural beauty of Aotearoa (New Zealand), genuine respect for whales, and the bumping up of ancient custom against modern realities, the movie Whale Rider was inspired by the book with the same title, written by Witi Ihimaera and originally published in 1987.
In the filmed version of the story, a twelve-year-old Maori girl, named Pai, becomes the only person in line for the position of chief in her village of Whangara when her twin brother dies shortly after his birth. However, by tradition, her tribe’s leader must be a first-born son — the direct patrilineal descendant of Paikea, the “Whale Rider,” who, when his canoe capsized, escaped his own death by riding to shore on the back of a whale.
As Pai grows, it becomes apparent that she possesses the qualities that echo those of the ancient, first Whale Rider for whom she was named. Her grandfather, the current chief, remains unmoved, however, and continually rejects her as the rightful heir because she is female. But when a pod of whales is stranded on Whangara’s beach, Pai’s power to communicate with the cetaceans helps her rescue the lead whale, who takes the pod back out to sea and brings new hope to the Maori people.
Released in the United States in 2003, Whale Rider earned thirteen-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, who played Pai, a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, making her the youngest person to that date ever nominated for an Oscar.
Number 4: Jeremiah Johnson
Who knows how many outdoor adventures this 1972 classic has inspired? It’s the movie that got a lot of coming-of-age Baby Boomers first interested in the wild with its celebration of the value and power of wilderness. Even author and environmental activist Rick Bass has credited this movie with influencing his move from Mississippi to Montana and for inspiring his conservation writings.
The movie stars Robert Redford as mountain man Jeremiah Johnson, who escapes into the Western peaks after experiencing the horrors of the Mexican-American War in the mid 1800s. His intent is to leave the world behind and live by himself, surviving as a fur trapper. The story is loosely based on the legendary life of John “Liver-Eating” Johnston (born John Garrison, circa 1824). In the film, Johnson is taken in by an old trapper named “Bear Claw” Chris Lapp, who teaches him how to stay alive in a hostile mountain world. Johnson’s adventures and misadventures on his own in the wild follow, including a vendetta waged by the Crow Indians, which quickly kills Johnson’s notion of finding an idyllic, solitary life. In the end, however, he does find the peace he so ardently seeks.
My favorite part of this film is when Johnson comes across the frozen body of Hatchet Jack (another mountain man), clutching a .50 caliber Hawken in his dead hands. Johnson reads from a note written by Hatchet and pinned to his cold, stiff jacket, “I, Hatchet Jack, being of sound mind and broken legs, do hereby leaveth my bear rifle to whatever finds it. Lord hope it be a white man. It is a good rifle and kilt the bear that kilt me. Anyway, I am dead. Yours truly, Hatchet Jack.”
The scenery of Utah is a strong character in its own right, especially since Redford himself has only about thirty lines of dialogue.
Number 5: The Secret of Roan Inish (Island of the Seals)
I first saw this 1994 film six years after its production; and now, after a decade, I find myself still thinking back to its highly original story.
Set in the mid 1940s in Ireland, the film starts out ordinarily enough. A ten-year-old girl in a factory town is sent to live with her grandparents on a rural western seacoast across from the island of Roan Inish (“Island of the Seals” in Gaelic). Her father, who got a manufacturing job in a city after losing his wife and son, feels that he has become too mired in his own grief to properly care for her. The girl, Fiona, soon learns from her grandparents that her whole family had once lived on Roan Inish and that it is on that island where her baby brother was accidentally carried off by high waves as he slept onshore in his cradle. No one ever saw him again.
The locals also reveal to Fiona that one of her ancestors married a selkie, a seal-like creature who can turn into a human. The selkie loved her husband very much, and the two had children. One day, however, the selkie discovers the place where her husband hid her sealskin. The call of the sea is still strong in her, and she can’t resist slipping the skin back on and returning to the deep waters. The dark-haired children in Fiona’s family are said to be a throwback to her selkie forebear.
Part of the beauty of this movie comes from how the story is told: with total seriousness. It’s not cutesy or fanciful; it’s not a children’s movie or a fantasy film. It’s a drama all the way to its very astonishing ending. Our connection to nature is depicted in three themes throughout the film: 1) love for the land we come from and the deep bonds we form with our home grounds, 2) our history with and great respect for the sea, and 3) our similarities to and closeness with other animals — even crossing the line from human to seal.
Folklore is always closely tied to nature. And our personal legends tie us, in turn, to the natural world. Watch this movie, and you’ll be reminded of that cycle of life.
Now it’s your turn. What nature DVDs are your favorites? Which ones are on your gift-giving list?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,