Want to introduce your kids to environmental theory? Grab the popcorn. These animated and live-action movies teach about sustainable living, waste reduction and habitat protection, as well as highlight the dangers of environmental degradation and overconsumption. Better yet, they’re all high-quality flicks that the whole family can enjoy, as the messages don’t override the entertainment value. As always, view responsibly — check the rating, and review possible sensitive issues before you press “play.”
What’s the Plot? Young deer Bambi must protect himself from natural and man-made disasters. Humanity’s violent tendencies lead to tragedy when a hunter kills Bambi’s mother.
Why It’s Worth Watching: One of the first pro-environment movies created, this animated film packs an emotional wallop for all ages and illustrates the ecosystem’s fight to survive, free of humanity’s destructiveness.
Rio (2011, PG)
What’s the Plot? An endangered pair of macaws is stolen from its owner by animal smugglers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; a brazen chase ensues through Rio’s streets and Carnaval parade.
Why It’s Worth Watching: Gorgeous cartoon colors and vibrant music illuminate Brazil’s rich culture, providing an engaging backdrop to a lesson on endangered species and animal smuggling.
Over the Hedge (2006, PG)
What’s the Plot? A ragtag band of cartoon forest critters invade a new suburb developed in their habitat and learn to steal convenience foods and garbage-can meals. Their voracious appetites lead to a duel with a vindictive exterminator.
Why It’s Worth Watching: This cartoon flick’s (sometimes crude) humor and gags don’t hinder the convincing messages against consumerism and for habitat protection.
Chicken Run (2000, G)
What’s the Plot? Not content to stay within their prison-like farm, a brood of chickens hatches a plan to escape — before the farmer’s wife starts turning them into mass-produced pies.
Why It’s Worth Watching: A wry critique of factory farming, this clay-action movie may turn your children into little vegetarians due to its smart dialogue and its oh-so-Brit band of chicken escapees.
March of the Penguins (2005, G)
What’s the Plot? This documentary follows the life cycle of Antarctica’s penguins, from birth to death, and their struggle to thrive, despite harsh conditions and predators.
Why It’s Worth Watching: The film has been criticized for anthropomorphizing penguins, but March helps children understand that all creatures live in a manner very similar to our own — and deserve our respect.
Fly Away Home (1996, PG)
What’s the Plot? After losing her mother in a car accident, 13-year-old Amy encounters a similarly lost flock of young goslings, which she teaches to fly south along their migratory route. The movie is based on a true story.
Why It’s Worth Watching: This sensitive film reinforces the idea that individuals can make an environmental difference — yes, even children. Great for older kids.
Whale Rider (2002, PG-13)
What’s the Plot? In this live-action movie, 12-year-old Pai is the last Maori descendant of the “Whale Rider” role — someone who can communicate with and ride humpback whales. In order to realize her destiny, she must overcome traditional gender roles.
Why It’s Worth Watching: This movie gracefully explores tensions between modernity and tradition and the role of humans within their environment; the beautiful shots of humpback whales may inspire budding Sea Shepherd members.
Never Cry Wolf (1983, PG)
What’s the Plot? A researcher heads to Alaska to discover whether wolves are actually endangering caribou herds. He slowly becomes more wolflike in appearance — and even diet — as he discovers what’s really going on.
Why It’s Worth Watching: This retro film bursts with gorgeous imagery of wild wolf packs and pristine Alaskan landscape; it’s a great starting point for discussions regarding Alaskan oil drilling and the interconnected web of arctic life.
Disneynature: Earth (2009, G)
What’s the Plot? This 99-minute documentary investigates Earth’s dimensions — from panoramic vistas to animal-family escapades — by moving through the seasons.
Why It’s Worth Watching: Just beneath the film’s feel-good surface, the subtext reminds young viewers that Earth’s continued success depends upon humanity’s caretaking and responsibility toward the planet.
Pom Poko (1994, PG)
What’s the Plot? Humans encroach on the habitat of the tanuki (a fictional, badger-like, shape-changing Japanese creature). In response, the tanuki take up humanity’s worst characteristics regarding consumerism and hoarding.
Why It’s Worth Watching: This Japanese animated film offers a cutting critique on large-scale development, greed and disposable culture.
Wall-E (2008, G)
What’s the Plot? In the year 2700, Wall-E the robot cleans up a trashed Earth left behind by humans, who now laze about in space. When a new robot visits, Wall-E confronts the humans and blazes a new path toward a healthier Earth.
Why It’s Worth Watching: One of the best environmental movies of all time, this Pixar flick inspires environmental awareness without sentimentality, all while poking satiric fun in a direct way.
- Happy Feet (2006, PG)
- Brother Bear (2003, G)
- Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002, G)
- Free Willy (1993, PG)
- Hoot (2006, PG)
- FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992, G)
- The Lorax (2012, PG)
- Epic (2013, PG)
- Open Season (2006, PG)
Feature image courtesy of when i was a bird. This article was originally published on October 29, 2013.