7 Environmental Films to Get You Focussed on Protecting Our Planet

Earth Day

Sandhill cranes take flight at sunrise from the Platte River in Nebraska, a temporary rest point before continuing their migration north to the prairie wetlands. The Sandhill cranes are one of three bird species covered in 'Wings Over Water,' a documentary about the Prairie Pothole Region, a huge swath of connected rivers, lakes, and wetlands spanning three provinces and five U.S. states. Photo: Wings Over Water Film Crew

April 22 is Earth Day, an ambitious annual grassroots event that began in 1970 that encourages and “activat[es] billions across 192 countries” to ponder the health of our planet while proactively working to protect it. 

This year, plastics are in the thematic crosshairs, with EarthDay.org advocating for greater awareness of the horrendous effects of discarded plastics on oceans, lands and life forms while seeking “a strong UN treaty on plastic pollution [and demanding] an end to fast fashion.” 

Of course, lasting environmental change requires more than a single day’s effort. But really thinking about how we live and the impacts our actions have on our immediate and distant orbits – from migrating birds to sea creatures, forests to coral reefs to people living in developing nations – is the first step toward meaningful achievement.

It’s sometimes hard to know where to start, and inspiration can be scarce. One of the simplest ways to feel galvanized (or horrified or delighted all effective catalysts for change) is through film. Documentaries show us wonders worth preserving while features imagine what might happen if we do nothing. Here are some recommended Earth Day-worthy titles, and where to see them.


Wings Over Water 

On Earth Day, select Cineplex and Landmark cinemas Canada-wide – plus the Saskatchewan Science Centre and the Montreal Science Centre – will screen this superb, 45-minute documentary about the Prairie Pothole Region, a huge swath of connected rivers, lakes, and wetlands spanning three provinces and five U.S. states. 

The film focuses on a trio of bird species as well as bison and honeybees sustained by these vital but threatened wetlands. As narrator, actor Michael Keaton, says, “Two-thirds of the Earth’s wetlands have been drained, diverted, and degraded. It’s estimated that there are three billion fewer birds in North America than 50 years ago. Three billion fewer seed-spreaders, insect-eaters, and nutrient providers.” 

The film’s IMAX cinematography is so vivid that you’ll feel you’re flying alongside the very charismatic Yellow Warbler, one of the film’s tiny stars. And you’ll desperately want to protect it. Box office proceeds support conservation group Ducks Unlimited Canada. 



There have been several notable documentaries on famed British primatologist Jane Goodall, 90. But this gorgeous 2017 title from director Brett Morgen comes closest to unveiling what makes this exceptional woman tick and what fuels her enduring altruism. Drawing from over 100 hours of previously unseen archival footage – much shot by Goodall’s then-husband, wildlife photographer, Hugo Arndt Rodolf, in the 1960s and 70s – Jane explores Goodall’s lifelong commitment to chimpanzees and their fragile habitat. Add in an ethereal score by the great Philip Glass and it’s impossible not to be inspired. Available on Disney+.


Don’t Look Up 

The Big Short director Adam McKay’s broad, almost slapstick 2021 satire about scientists raising the alarm over an incoming, Earth-destroying comet – and facing skeptics and cynics on all sides – took something of a critical drubbing upon its release. But its urgent underlying environmental message, not to mention its mockery of disaster deniers, is as highly watchable as its sterling cast: Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, and Jonah Hill. Available on Netflix. 


The Biggest Little Farm 

This uplifting 2018 documentary follows filmmaker John Chester as he and wife Molly build a sustainable working farm on 200 slightly hostile acres outside of Los Angeles. “Our version of a farm would be different. Plants, wildlife, livestock all working together,” Chester says in voiceover. “We wanted to believe that everything had a purpose. We had our plan … and nature had hers.” 

The pair and their crew suffer setbacks aplenty but persevere, creating something magical and harmonious with nature. Adorable animals, from piglets to puppies, play brilliant supporting roles. Available on Disney+.


Food Inc. 2

This sequel to 2008’s Oscar-nominated documentary about our dubious and highly industrialized modern food system asks experts, including investigative authors Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), to navigate better ways of eating amid a handful of dominant corporations motivated by profit and ambivalent about human rights and environmental degradation. It’s in theatres in Toronto and Montreal on April 19, and expands to other cities throughout the spring.


Kiss the Ground

Another worthy documentary focusing on food production’s dire impact on our environment. Kiss the Ground posits that regenerative agriculture which incorporates farmland restoration, forest conservation and tree intercropping, plus multiple other alternatives to our current farming system is a game-changer. “Healthy soils lead to healthy plants. Healthy plant, healthy human, healthy climate.” Vegan actor and activist Woody Harrelson narrates what is billed as a beacon of hope amid endless bad climate news. Available on Netflix.


I Am Greta

It’s hard to watch this 2020 documentary on Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg without feeling guilty for not having done more to help right the environmental wrongs she has tackled, publicly, since she was a kid. But there’s also awe in seeing Thunberg speaks bluntly and fearlessly to those in power at a global level. Thunberg is a force of nature, and this film showcases the outspoken young woman who has inspired generations around the world. Streaming free on CBC Gem.


Honourable mentions: 

Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018), both directed by Jennifer Baichwal and available free on CBC Gem; and An Inconvenient Truth (2006) available to rent on Prime Video. The National Film Board of Canada also has a sizable cache of titles on environment and conservation that are free to stream.