Just in time for Earth Day, a brand new Disneynature film has debuted on the streaming service Disney+ alongside the last theatrical release of the brand and a prior feature that never arrived in U.S. cinemas. Now children can watch the somewhat real lives of elephants, penguins, and dolphins courtesy of the aptly titled Elephant, Penguins, and Dolphin Reef. Disney doesn’t like to promote their nature films as documentaries, however, so none of them make the cut of my list of the best docs for kids.
There are some Disney films here, though, including one title distributed but not produced by the studio that inspired their return to nonfiction animal-focused films. I’ve tried to come up with a varied selection of documentaries that entertain and educate young viewers while also potentially leading them to become nonfiction cinema fans as they grow. Sure, some of these are going to take a bit of work on their part compared to a colorful feature involving narratively anthropomorphized bears and monkeys, but they get enough mindless junk elsewhere.
Nanook of the North (1922)
The picture many incorrectly believe to be the first documentary feature is a good place to start with any nonfiction film studies syllabus, and it’s also a great place to start kids off on this mode of cinema. Depending on the child’s age, discussing the details of Nanook of the North‘s production and its ethical concerns may be left for later viewings, but otherwise, its depiction of Inuit life in the Arctic — forced and fictionalized and false as it may have been at the time of its making — is plenty entertaining for audiences of all ages.
It’s a good introduction to silent film, as well, if they’re not already watching Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (as all kids ought to be). And you can follow it up, maybe a few years later, with Robert J. Flaherty‘s subsequent feature, Moana (not to be confused with the Disney animated film), which follows the coming of age of a Samoan boy. From there, the world of ethnography is opened up and may lead to such classics as Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life and eventually more recent essentials like Sweetgrass and Manakamana.
Disneyland Dream (1956)
Some film historians choose to label this half-hour short as more specifically a home movie rather than a documentary, but either way, it’s a work of nonfiction cinema. Most children love Disneyland and Walt Disney World, or would if they could only get there. Whether it’s because of a coronavirus outbreak or a lack of family savings, a lot of kids make up for their lack of literal travel by virtually watching POV videos of Disney theme park rides on YouTube. That’s fine, but it’s impersonal. Better they watch this film that follows one family’s vacation.
Robbins Barstow, his wife, and their three kids won a free trip to Southern California in 1956, courtesy of Scotch Tape. Disneyland Dream is mainly focused on the day they spent at the Anaheim-based attraction opened just a year prior by Walt Disney. The park may have changed significantly in the 64 years since, but that only adds to the fun, historically speaking. There’s a good reason the film has been added to the National Film Registry and the more promotional Disney documentary of the same year, Disneyland, U.S.A., is not. Tip for parents: watch for a young Steve Martin, working at Disneyland as a boy magician, about 20 minutes in.
Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959)
Unlike Disneyland Dream, this short documentary was produced by Walt Disney himself. The mostly-animated feature stars Donald Duck, who had led plenty of nonfiction efforts made by the studio in the past, particularly in the early 1940s whether for the purposes of World War II propaganda (see such films as The Spirit of ’43, Commando Duck, and the controversial Der Fuehrer’s Face) or in an effort of goodwill as part of the Good Neighbor policy towards Latin America (see Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros). This one has aged better.
Donald in Mathmagic Land is as timeless as math itself. The Oscar-nominated short follows the temper-prone cartoon duck as he learns about Pythagoras, geometry, billiards, the mathematic science behind art and nature, and more. A lot of children hate math, but like Donald in this educational film, they’ll overcome their fears and distaste for the subject thanks to a mix of animation and live-action plus a variety of visual aids. Also: fun with music and games. If only all concepts were given this sort of memorable, entertaining treatment.
Seven Up! (1964)
When Granada Television created this short documentary for its World in Action series, there were no plans to follow its subjects throughout their whole lives. But that’s what has happened thanks to the Up series helmed by Michael Apted, who was a young researcher on this first installment. Paul Almond directed the original, which takes a sociological look at seven-year-olds from different backgrounds — defined by their class status and the regions in which they live — as a study of children representing Britain’s future.
Young viewers today can identify with little Tony, Suzy, Neil, and the rest, despite the world being significantly different more than half a century later. And where the film isn’t relatable, watching Seven Up! is a great way for children to learn about how different kids are from other walks of life from their own community or country. It’s up to them or their parents if they want to plow through the eight subsequent installments in order to see the rest of the characters’ lives immediately, which could be a great learning experience on social determination, or they wait seven years to meet everyone again at 14 in 7 Plus Seven.
To Be Alive! (1964)
Released the same year as Seven Up!‘s showcase of children from different socio-economic backgrounds, Alexander Hammid and Francis Thompson‘s similarly punctuated To Be Alive! presents a poetically narrated look at children from different locations and cultures from around the world in a film that’s ultimately a celebration of life. The 18-minute short won an Oscar, repeating the Academy’s fondness for little docs about kids evidenced 14 years earlier with their awarding The World of Kids (which might have made this list if I could find a copy to watch) in the same category.
The version of the film that qualified for an Oscar, and which is now readily available, is not its original incarnation, however. To Be Alive! was produced for the 1964 New York Word’s Fair under the sponsorship of Johnson Wax and was shown as an installation projected onto three separate screens (the only place to see it this way today is at Johnson’s headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin). What remains is still an opportunity for kids to see a universal portrait of youth with children in New York, Africa, Japan, and Europe growing up among different surroundings but all still looking at the world from similar perspectives and sharing similar interests as they come of age and look ahead toward adulthood.
To Be Alive! begins with a sequence of American life sped-up, and it’s kind of a precursor to this classic non-narrative documentary from Godfrey Reggio. Famous for both its Philip Glass score and mix of time-lapse and slow-motion cinematography shot around the world, Koyaanisqatsi is a visual experience that will keep kids mesmerized. Maybe they won’t get the spiritual “life out of balance” theme (Reggio claims there’s no real point to the film anyway and initially wanted no title at all either), but they’ll appreciate the images of nature and urban life moving at significantly exaggerated pace.
Koyaanisqatsi was followed by two sequels that make up Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy: Powaqqatsi (sometimes subtitled “Life in Transformation”) in 1988 and Naqoyqatsi (subtitled “Life as War”) in 2002. Neither is as appropriate for young children due to their depictions of violent conflict and labor and the latter film’s intense archival montage. Those can be saved for when the kids are a little older when they also might transition to classic experimental docs like Man with a Movie Camera (and other Soviet nonfiction works), which will then lead them to an appreciation of city symphony films.
The Way Things Go (1987)
Another nonfiction film involving motion, The Way Things Go is more of a recording of an impressive art installation than something purists would consider a documentary. Regardless, kids can’t resist chain reactions and Rube Goldberg machines, and this half-hour film follows one such extensive continuous system involving everyday household objects. Maybe they’ll want to see more, like the ones in OK GO music videos or in YouTube videos of domino set-ups, or they’ll be inspired to make machines of their own.
Kids also love to watch basic science projects, and The Way Things Go consists of many of them as part of the process in its overall machine. They get to observe chemical and physical reactions as well as simple principals of physics, such as the motion of liquids on an incline. Also: flying balls on fire! This film is filled with pyrotechnics, and that makes the film more of a spectacle for younger viewers while also being a more impressive Rube Goldberg machine than most since it could have been dangerous if not done perfectly. How exciting.
Few documentaries from the early 2000s look as amazing and timeless as this early work by Mike Mills, the former music video director who’d go on to helm such acclaimed features as Beginners and 20th Century Women. Paperboys is a simple film following a handful of, you guessed it, paperboys from suburban Minnesota. The young subjects are candid about their lives and their work and work ethic, which comes across as very positive for viewers of the same age and below. Parents share thoughts on the job’s favorable influence, too.
It’s rare to see a documentary, or any film really, following boys like these without the subject matter going darker or more depressing with focus on poverty or crime or an otherwise negative issue affecting the kids. Some of the subjects are a little older than what I’d wanted to include on this list, but the film is still more interested in them being boys, not teenagers with their usual problems. I like to think of Paperboys as Salesman Jr., as in it is sort of a younger version of the Maysles brothers’ 1969 Direct Cinema classic.
March of the Penguins (2005)
Nature and wildlife documentaries go back to the dawn of cinema, and they continue to be big box office draws particularly on IMAX screens as well as ratings giants for numerous cable networks and streaming services. What makes this one stand out as the best to recommend to kids? Well, it’s just playful enough in its narration to really appeal to younger audiences without going overboard the way some Disneynature features do. And really, the original French incarnation of the film is more anthropomorphizing, with its voiceover from the perspective of the penguins, than the more familiar Morgan Freeman-narrated version.
Filmed in Antarctica over the course of a year, March of the Penguins depicts a life cycle of emperor penguins as they mate, care for their young, and travel great distances in search of food. Media coverage of the documentary made a big deal about the gender roles of the birds since the male is responsible for the chicks while the females go off to “work,” and its popularity as one of the year’s biggest family films was likely in part because of the creature’s relationship dynamics as well as the heat of the summer driving attendance in air-conditioned cinemas. The film’s popularity inspired the creation of the Disneynature brand as well as a greater trend in Hollywood to make reality and animated content involving adorable penguins.
What if we could go back in time and make wildlife documentaries about dinosaurs? Little kids would go crazy for that. The next best thing is wonky CG dinos, whether they’re on educational entertainment programs like Dino Dana or in a documentary feature such as Dinotasia. The film includes a variety of beasts from eons ago, with some of them fighting in moments that are moderately violent yet still suitable for most children. Is it scientifically accurate? Who knows when it comes to dinos, but it works with relatively modern theories.
Most notably, Dinotasia, which is compiled from material previously aired on the Discovery Channel as a miniseries titled Dinosaur Revolution, features narration from Werner Herzog! The exclamation point is an understatement, of course. But not too random because Dinotasia co-director Erik Nelson is a longtime producing partner of Herzog’s. The voiceover bits are sparse and not as interesting as those in his own documentaries, but you gotta get the young ones introduced to Herzog at some point. Parents will be underwhelmed by the doc’s hokiness but dino-loving tykes will eat it up like a T.rex chomping on a stegosaurus.
Apollo 11 (2019)
If there’s anything kids love more than dinosaurs, it’s outer space, and there are tons of great documentaries about space travel and looking back at Earth to keep those viewers occupied for days. There are also a number of docs about astronauts and young NASA hopefuls and historical achievements involving the program. But if you want to avoid a lot of talking heads and grown-up chatter, Apollo 11 is the film to lean on above the rest. The award-winning documentary shows more than tells as it depicts man’s trip to the Moon.
Not unlike the many IMAX films involving NASA missions, Apollo 11 deserves the biggest screen and loudest sound system possible to completely engulf the young viewer and make them feel like they’re right there in the summer of 1969 watching the preparations and launch and then inside the rocket and module alongside Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. They’ll be in awe while also partaking in an immersive learning experience that seems like anything but schoolwork.