Amazing Animals

9 of the Best Nature Documentary Films

From bears to butterflies, via films about cows and even humans, here’s our guide to some of the best feature-length animal documentaries available to watch online

Documentaries about nature and wildlife are able to grab our attention like no other film genre around. The best animal documentaries mix fascinating information with stunning imagery, and incredibly interesting insight into the often absurd world of earth’s creatures. Whether you want a closer look at animal behaviour, are keen to get introspective about the impact of humanity, or are simply in the mood to learn more about life on our planet… this list of nature documentaries has got you covered.

Some of the best nature documentaries come in television series form and, let’s face it, most of those come from one very special person: Sir David Attenborough. While we’re here to talk feature-length documentaries, we felt it would be criminal to leave his name unspoken. The 2020 Netflix documentary film David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet explores his career and is well worth a watch, but it just missed out on our list as it’s arguably more of a biopic than a straight-up nature documentary. 

This essential list below shows that when you bring together some of Mother Nature’s most captivating stories with talented filmmakers, it’s very often a recipe for success. Whether it’s the inspiring nature of butterflies that speak to you here or the confrontation with harsh truths about our human habits that makes an impact, these documentary films below are bound to affect you in one way or another. They shine a spotlight on the animal kingdom, and they come highly recommended.

Grizzly Man (2005)

When it comes to fascinating otherworldly documentary films, no one does it quite like Werner Herzog. His 2005 documentary film Grizzly Man is a posthumous glimpse into the lives of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who made it their lives’ concern to protect and subsequently live, and die, amongst Grizzly Bears in Alaska. Assembled from hundreds of hours of footage recorded by the untrained-but-cinematically-gifted Treadwell himself, the documentary gives an insight into the inherent relationship between human and wild animal. Passion turns to dedication, with the film giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “life’s work”. 

Werner Herzog was himself shot with an air rifle during a promotional interview with the BBC for the documentary, which, in true ‘Herzogian’ fashion, he later brushed off simply as a part of life. It’s an incident that underlines the unique personality of Grizzly Man’s director.

Grizzly Man is available to watch on Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime.

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

“What she taught me was to feel that you’re part of this place, not a visitor.”

This Oscar-winning 2020 Netflix release explores an intimate bond between man and octopus, a creature often seen as alien to human nature. You’d be forgiven for thinking the same, too, which is what makes the story of this documentary so fascinating. As Craig Foster began a daily routine with an octopus living in a kelp forest in South Africa, he was oblivious to the lessons he would learn in the coming weeks. Both Foster’s and the octopus’ curiosity of each other, together with their experiences of their versions of the world made for a fascinating tale of mystery, introspection, and learning. This fascinating film will inspire your own approach to pretty much everything. Give it a watch – you won’t be disappointed. 

My Octopus Teacher is available to watch on Netflix.

Cow (2021)

An empathetic and delicate look into the life of a dairy cow. 

Before Cow (2021), Andrea Arnold had been known, recognised, and widely praised for her cinematic works of fiction like 2009’s Fish Tank and 2016’s American Honey, which both won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (a pretty big deal). For her most recent film, though, Arnold has turned from fiction to fact as she documents the life of a cow called Luma, observing each process of her day through a beautiful sensorial lens.

From giving birth to making milk, and all the grazing in between, Arnold’s unforgiving eye invites us into the more emotional aspect of a dairy cow’s experience. Cow, by focusing on one cow in particular, builds a moving relationship with both Luma herself and the wider animal species at large. Compassionately conveying a unique perspective, the film is a difficult watch but an important one as well.

Cow is available to watch on MUBI, Apple TV and Curzon.

Dominion (2018)

This is what drones are for.

Exposing the unfathomably dark underworld of modern agriculture comes pretty easy to those who aren’t afraid to dive in head first, and that crowd is led here by Chris Delforce and the team at Farm Transparency Project. Dominion is a confrontational and direct film that not only questions the morality and integrity behind the animal food industry, but answers it too.

Warmly but sternly narrated by a host of familiar voices including Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara, Dominion recognises and explores the value of our sovereignty over the animal kingdom (sometimes that means having to show some pretty nasty stuff). Drones are flown over and into Australian meat farms, navigating the sheltered churn of animals for human gain. It’s pretty dark stuff, but one that challenges the deliberate ignorance so often seen across our precious planet. 

Dominion is available to watch for free here.

The Last Lions (2011)

A classic National Geographic documentary film that’ll give you everything you want and more, The Last Lions tells the story of a widowed lioness left to fend for herself and her cubs in the dense wetlands of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Suspense, chaos, and awe decorate the running time of this alluring documentary film directed by award-winning filmmaking couple Dereck and Beverly Joubert.

On the surface, it’s what you imagine when you think of nature documentaries; lions, wildlife, narration from a familiar voice (Jeremy Irons narrates this particular story, yes that’s the actor behind one of the most iconic lion performances of all time: Irons was Scar in 1994’s The Lion King). At its core though The Last Lions is a distress beacon, one that highlights the impacts and associated risks of governments and institutions actively deciding against protecting lions from poaching. The Jouberts do brilliantly to show how lions are inherently kings of the animal kingdom, and why it’s for this precise reason that they need the most protection.

The Last Lions is available to watch on Vimeo.

The Salt of the Earth (2014)

What if humans were the subject of a nature documentary? The result of making a film about a photographer’s life work is something similar to precisely this. How? Well, his work can span decades, continents, and hundreds if not thousands of lives when you think about it. 

2014’s The Salt of the Earth follows a legendary Brazilian photographer called Sebastião Salgado as he documents humanity’s place in the world, and threads the needle of discontent between human nature and the only planet we’re ever going to get (Earth). Directed in partnership by Sebastião’s son Juliano Ribeiro and renowned filmmaker Wim Wenders (director of films such as Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas), the documentary can’t help but put humanity first, studying us humans as devices of our environments and not just as spectators to the spin of the Earth. An art-house spin on the nature documentary for those nights when you want the best of both worlds.

The Salt of the Earth is available to watch on Curzon and Amazon Prime.

Flight of the Butterflies (2012)


Well and truly a product of the 2000’s IMAX boom, Mike Slee’s Flight of the Butterflies is a wonderfully crafted story and a visual feast – so long as you aren’t a little creeped out by our fluttery friends. Native to the US and Canada in the warmer months but absent for winter, the monarch butterflies’ annual migration forms the spine of this documentary. It took Dr. Fred Urquhart nearly 40 years to complete his scientific investigation into where they go for the winter, with Slee’s film tracking the journey of both the monarch’s migration and Urquhart’s fascination. Tracking what is considered to be one of the longest known insect migrations, Flight of the Butterflies challenges everything we thought we knew about instinct and insects.

Flight of the Butterflies is available to watch on Amazon Prime.

March of the Penguins (2005)

A cultural moment.

The Oscar-winning nature-documentary-hall-of-famer March of the Penguins needs very little introduction. The genre-defining documentary-film was created by Luc Jaquet and the National Geographic Society, narrated by Morgan Freeman, and is all about – you guessed it- penguins. A film crew follows and documents the dramatic annual journey of emperor penguins in Antarctica, focusing on the extreme conditions that surround the hatching, and raising, of a chick on the ice.

Film was used to record all the footage as digital equipment at the time wasn’t functional in low temperatures, and the film crew worked through temperatures as low as -60°C and winds of up to 125 miles per hour. The filmmakers weren’t just behind the cameras, though. Of Penguins and Men is a minifilm made by the crew about the filming of March of the Penguins, and is well worth a watch if the main feature left you wanting more.

The success of March of the Penguins led to a 2010 sequel, a Nintendo DSI video game release (no, really), but mostly a shift in the culture of nature documentaries. Its influence on the style and dramatism of the genre can still be seen today, marking the 2005 release out as a work that’s truly timeless.

March of the Penguins is available to watch on Netflix.

Honeyland (2019)

When directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov came across Hatidze, a honey cultivator living in the Macedonian mountains, they knew the direction of their documentary had to recenter its focus. The directors originally planned to document the area surrounding the Bregalnica river, but after Hatidze’s ancient beekeeping traditions caught their attention they began to learn more about the ensuing stories of living in conditions so remote, so in touch with nature, and the film took on a life of its own.

Honeyland centres around the impact of Hatidze’s new neighbours, who initially seem like a promising alleviation from her solace but who soon turn into a pressing source of tension. It’ll have you questioning (and hoping) that it’s a work of fiction (spoilers: it’s all real), and leave you totally in awe of every bee you see from then onwards. With nature, bees, and, of course, honey at its core, this nature documentary decorates the blurry, buzzing line between nature and humanity and is well worth your time.

Honeyland is available to watch on Google Play, Apple TV, and Curzon.

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