Tag Archives: nature documentaries

Doing His Research


by George Wolf

“Science can only advance when you do things that other people say can’t be done.”

So says climate scientist Lonnie Thompson, PhD, and he should know. He’s been walking the walk for decades, and Canary finds him finally ready to start talking the talk.

And yes, the title does refer to the “canary in a coal mine” metaphor, but directors Danny O’Malley and Alex Rivest wisely spend half of the film’s running time on an extended introduction to a man who’s been described as “the closest living thing to Indiana Jones.”

Growing up poor in West Virginia mining county, Lonnie took his scientific mind to Ohio State University to explore coal geology. But a research job studying glaciers changed the course of his life, and ultimately, the very nature of climate research.

Since 1989, Lonnie and his wife Ellen Mosely-Thompson, PhD, have run OSU’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, spearheading groundbreaking work that earned Lonnie a National Medal of Science.

Lonnie’s background and achievements are extraordinary, as O’Malley and Rivest show us a man that none but the most rabid ideologue could ever accuse of grandstanding. His only agenda is scientific fact. But after decades of climbing mountains, drilling into previously unexplored ice caps and collecting indispensable data on the effects of climate change, Lonnie had to face some colder, harder facts.

“What do you not see? Why the disbelief?”

Though he long believed his work would speak for itself, and that the different sides of the political spectrum could “debate solutions, but accept the facts,” Lonnie saw things begin to change in the early 2000s. Canary connects some dots of the misinformation campaign that turned the tide, with evidence of some high-profile politicians quickly shifting their stances.

Lonnie came to accept how hard people will fight back against a forced change in lifestyle, and we see that play out with irony in his own home. Lonnie himself ignored the science of his doctor’s advice and kept climbing until it nearly killed him.

And now, as he sees global CO2 levels still rising, Lonnie realizes his time may best be spent not by collecting another ice core, but by spreading the word of what a lifetime of “doing his research” has revealed.

The film is an awe-inspiring and important step on that journey. Lonnie still believes that if humans can cause a problem, then humans can also solve that problem. And Canary‘s biggest success comes from giving you no reason to doubt the man, even if you want to.

Bloody Water Everywhere

A Taste of Whale

by George Wolf

Filmmaker Vincent Kelner knows you don’t want to see what he has for you.

But while his documentary A Taste of Whale doesn’t shy away from blood in the water, his ultimate goal lies beyond the killing grounds.

In his feature debut, Kelner takes us to Europe’s Faroe Islands, where every year some 700 pilot whales die in a traditional slaughter known to locals as the “Grind” (pronounced like “grinned”). Though the Faroes is a constituent country of Denmark, the people live under their own constitution, just one of the reasons many natives believe it’s a privilege to call the Faroes home.

And Kelner lets many Faroese defend the Grind with conviction, pointing to mischaracterizations and misunderstandings, while labeling visiting activists as “tourists.”

But there are some on the island that are willing to admit their hunting methods have strayed far beyond the traditional, and that maybe some of the protesters have a point.

Kelner does an admirable job tackling the issue from opposing sides, even drawing a subtle parallel between pragmatic approaches to behavioral change and recent pandemic mandates here at home.

But Kelner’s understated hand begins to apply more pressure once someone comments on the disconnect between not wanting to see things die, but still wanting to eat things that are dead.

If you turn away in horror at Kelner’s graphic footage from the Grind – and later, from slaughterhouses – A Taste of Whale stresses that this bloodshed will always exist “wherever you have meat for food.”

It is a bit of rope-a-dope from Kelner, but he wants you to be horrified. And when you are, he’s waiting to challenge your convictions with a lifestyle change that’s framed as the only logical choice.

The Impossible Dream

14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible

by George Wolf

Nirmal “Nims” Purja likes to keep a positive outlook.

“I’m not going to die today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.”

And while tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us, Nims tends to tempt fate more than most. A mountaineer, adventurer and former member of the Special Forces in Nepal, Nims feels most alive when he’s dreaming big and living life on the edge.

Netflix’s 14 Peaks documents his biggest dream: summiting all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter + peaks (26, 247 feet and above) in just 7 months. To put that in proper context, the previous record for achieving the feat was 7 years. And Reinhold Messner – one of the greatest legends in all of climbing – took 16 years to ascend all 14.

So the plan that Nims dubbed “Project Possible” was ambitious, to say the least, and Messner himself sets the stakes for us. To Messner, climbing these wonders of the world “is not fun.” It is a practice filled with pain, danger and death.

That said, Nims sure seems to be enjoying himself, and part of that is helping to document his own journey.

If you come to 14 Peaks only for the breathtaking visuals, you will not be disappointed, especially if you can view it on a wide screen. Director/co-writer Torquil Jones takes us above the clouds over and over again, utilizing sparkling, absolutely thrilling footage often taken by Nims himself (including his incredible shot of a 300-person Mt. Everest traffic jam that quickly went viral).

But Jones also mines tension through the attempts at fundraising for the project (where Nims admits “I sound like a lunatic’) and getting the clearance from the Chinese government to climb in Tibet. Intimacy comes from getting to know Nims himself, who turns out to be a fascinating and endearing subject. We see his preparations and the tests that reveal him to be genetically gifted for enduring high altitude/low oxygen environments, as well as Nim’s commitment to to helping fallen comrades on the mountain, and to getting recognition for the oft-nameless Sherpas who are invaluable to visiting climbers.

And, Jones lets us meet Nims’s family, establishing a touching contrast between his apparent lack of fear and the feeling of failure that comes from being away from his ailing mother as he climbs.

14 Peaks will help you discover both a man and a mission. Separately, they’re pretty compelling. Together, they’re a force of nature.

He Sells Sanctuary

The Conservation Game

by George Wolf

The runaway train wreck that was The Tiger King made Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin into instant celebrities, and overnight, it seemed everyone in America was taking sides.

Retired Ohio cop Tim Harrison kept his focus on the cats, and The Conservation Game takes us inside his relentless but cool-headed mission to expose the shadowy dealings of the animal exploitation trade.

Harrison grew up enthralled by Marlon Perkins on Wild Kingdom, and then by Jack Hanna’s animal exploits on TV. For a time, Harrison even wanted to follow in Hanna’s footsteps. But he was already growing disenchanted with “reality TV mindset” of the talk show animal segments when a visit to an exotic animals auction changed the course of his life.

Wisely, director Michael Webber takes an approach that is the polar opposite of The Tiger King. Though the Baskins make an appearance and Joe Exotic’s threats to Carole’s life are referenced, Webber makes all that mess a logical and organic part of a bigger picture that is well-reasoned and far from sensationalized.

Harrison and his passionate team set out to expose the dirty secrets of the animal expert personalities, and the hidden network of breeders keeping them supplied with cute baby “ambassador cats.”

But what happens when the babies grow up? Where are these “sanctuaries” the hosts talk about on TV?

Harrison puts those questions to wildlife personalities including Jerod Miller, Dave Salmoni, Boone Smith and Grant Kemmerer, and their answers are peppered with evasion, condescension and and even veiled threats.

“Just because you haven’t found them doesn’t mean they disappeared,” one of them argues. “It means you need to learn how to find them better.”

Webber makes a quick cut to the online sleuth of Harrison’s team who deadpans, “Challenge accepted.”

Outside of a few re-enactments of Harrison’s youth, the film trades style for a more guerrilla approach. But the hidden-camera footage rivals both Blackfish and The Cove for sheer bullseye effectiveness. It’s gut-wrenching, heartbreaking and downright infuriating, with Webber employing well-placed edits that call out apparent lies with speed and precision.

I’ve lived in Columbus, Ohio for almost forty years, and much like Harrison, I’ve always regarded our zoo as a national treasure and Hanna as a local hero. Full disclosure: I’ve been to events that enabled me to take photos with these types of ambassador cats.

And because Hanna is the biggest name involved here, the charges against him and the Columbus Zoo land with the most shocking and disappointing force.

Webber is able to include the news of Hanna’s retirement and dementia diagnosis, as well as the Columbus Zoo’s recent decision to reverse course and formally endorse passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act championed by Harrison, Baskin, and scores of other zoos and animal rights activists.

What prompted that specific change is left up to us to decide, but Harrison is much more direct about the changes needed to end the exploitation of ambassador animals.

Webber uses the journey of one committed man to make the message relatable, relying on the power of what he finds to become universal. Will this film fuel the outrage that arose after the revelations in Blackfish and The Cove?

That’s up to us as well. The Conversation Game may be a little more rough around the edges, but its case is nearly as closed.

No Reply at All

The Loneliest Whale

by George Wolf

Ask any rando what their favorite Star Trek movie is, and you’ll get plenty of the same response.

“The one with the whales!”

To save the universe, Kirk and the gang have to make sure a whale’s song gets answered. It was touching, right?

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 finds a similar nerve, chasing a legendary animal seemingly alone in the vastness of the ocean.

The U.S. Navy first heard the whale in 1992, calling out at 52 Hz, a unique frequency no other whale could understand. And so the songs of this lonely whale – dubbed “52” – went unanswered, until the Navy stopped listening ten years ago.

A New York Times article about 52’s plight ignited a global community of souls who could relate to feeling alone in a sea of noise. One of those was director Joshua Zemen, and his film attempts to separate the facts from the legend while documenting a weeklong expedition to actually track down 52 in the open ocean.

52’s story is certainly a compelling one, and Zemen gives it more context through background info on the history of whaling and how 1970’s “Songs of the Humpback Whale” began to change the way we thought about these majestic creatures.

Zemen’s approach may be far from stylish, but it is earnest, ambitious and respectful, which seems fitting for a story anchored in a love of science and nature. And while the correlations between a friendless whale and a sea of people increasingly detached through technology are hard to miss, Zemen finds the restraint to avoid boldly going there once too often.

The Loneliest Whale captures its most effective feels in the epilogue, when we catch up with Zemen and members of his team getting some surprising news two months after their expedition came to an end. It’s a surprise that not only brings hope for 52, but for anyone warmed by nature’s little victories.

The Shapes of Water


by George Wolf

“We swam out through the trunk!”

Those are six of the very few spoken words in Aquarela, and they quickly establish the stakes in Victor Kossakovsky’s immersive documentary. His aim is to get you startlingly close to the world war between man and water.

There is power, there is beauty, there is death. And there’s some death metal, which isn’t as out of place as you might think.

In case you haven’t noticed, this is a great time to be a documentarian, and thus, a fan of documentaries. This year alone, we’ve seen technological breakthroughs make possible the wonders of Apollo 11, They Shall Not Grow Old and Amazing Grace.

Like those, Aquarela (“watercolor” in Portuguese) employs cutting-edge wizardry for an experience that begs for the biggest screen you can find.

Monstrous ocean waves build and crash, huge chunks of ice fall prey to rising global temperatures, and a hypnotic narrative emerges. Mankind has battled the shapes of water for centuries, in hopes of lessening its dangers and harnessing its power, and Kossakovsky feels it’s time to hear from the other side. The few humans who speak feel like party crashers.

Don’t expect explanations, you won’t get any. What you will get in Aquarela is an utterly astounding profile of a living, breathing, dying force of nature.

Polar Pop


by George Wolf

Temperatures have finally started warming up.

So why would we take a trip to the coldest, windiest place on Earth, where there ain’t no sunshine for half the year?

Because Antarctica is where the Penguins are, and they’re the focus of Disneynature’s latest Earth Day doc for the family!

You might know the drill by now. Expect incredible nature footage, an approach geared more toward accessibility than science, with some easygoing humor and gentle reminders about the harshness of predators and prey.

Ed Helms narrates this adventure, starring an Adelie penguin we’ll call Steve, who’s finally ready for his first mating season as a single-and-ready-to-mingle adult male.

On his long trek to the hookup point Steve passes through a tribe of his Emperor cousins, which reminds us that 1) this is like March of the Penguins, except different, and 2) Steve is a bit of a laggie.

But he catches up to the rest of the migrators, and after impressing a young coldie known as Adelene, Steve finds a mate and a new family. Together, Steve and Adelene must keep their chicks safe until they’re able to fend for themselves in the open sea.

The writing for this installment is less forced, with many of Helms’s asides for Steve (“She smells great! I gotta start working out…”) drawing chuckles without the added weight of manipulation that has hampered previous Earth Day episodes.

Directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson (both Disneynature vets) hit all the right benchmarks in their 76 minutes: a penguin adventure that will delight the kids told through often breathtaking footage plus, for the adults, nostalgic odes to parenting and classic hits (Whitesnake! REO!).

And, per usual, stay through the credits for some nifty peeks behind the icy curtain.

It’s The Thought That Counts

Love Thy Nature

by Cat McAlpine

The best way to convince people that caring for the planet is badass is to have a badass tell them so. This is what I was hoping to get from Liam Neeson’s narration of Love Thy Nature. This is not what I got.

Neeson’s involvement is featured heavily in the documentary’s promotions, but his real role is much smaller than that of “narrator.” Neeson voices “sapiens, homo sapiens” – essentially speaking for the human race. The choice to involve the human race as a whole and to engage it, quite literally, in a dialogue is interesting but ultimately not effective. Neeson’s script is heavy handed, ending musing thoughts with sudden reversals like “Or is it?” or “Could I be wrong?”

The film itself proceeds like any shown in a high school science classroom. Picturesque landscape shots cover the basics; rocks, beach, underwater, trees, the savannah. These shots are accompanied by a litany of new age talking heads, cartoonish and often unnecessary animations, and an excessive amount of footage featuring people gazing into the distance.

What’s most perplexing is that the talking heads never seem to say much of merit. The film has good heart, urging that we reconnect with the planet, but when it comes to facts or statistics, an entire cast of scientific professionals has little to offer. One talking head claims that “slathering ourselves with sunblock or covering up actually increases the risk of skin cancer.” There’s no follow up.

Love Thy Nature is segmented by profound quotes about man and nature, displayed on the screen in white lettering on the same hazy forest backdrop each time. The quotes seem to have little purpose other than to be inspirational.

While the film eventually suggests that we can use technology to further our relationship with nature, a bizarre cut early on seems to suggest that children playing video games leads to forest fires.

Eventually, director Sylvie Rokab settles on the idea of biomimicry, an engineering field that focuses on using designs that are naturally occurring. It seems like this is what Love Thy Nature has been building toward, the ultimate reconnection of man and nature. The segment lasts about a minute or two, with few hard facts, and then is over.

Rokab is obviously dedicated to this cause, also co-writing the script and story and leading the Kickstarter that funded the project. It is a noble cause. Sapiens, Homo Sapiens, will find it hard to deny a cry to take better care of both our planet and ourselves. But this Earth Day is better served by skipping the film and going outside.