You might not immediately think of Disney+ as a go-to for documentaries, but there’s more than you think there are.
Whether you’re itching for a behind-the-scenes look at Obi-Wan Kenobi and Marvel’s big action scenes or you’d like to learn about where we’re at with climate change, the streaming platform has a slew of strong documentaries on offer. Don’t forget there’s a whole National Geographic channel alongside the stash of Disney classics and the Marvel menu, as well as ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series.
Here are the best documentaries on Disney+, both films and series, that will give you a closer look at the entertainment we inhale, the superheroes we fly with, and the planet we’re constantly begging world leaders to save.
The 20 best documentaries on Netflix
Before we start, you may notice we’ve left out Taylor Swift’s Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions and Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles. They’re more concert films than documentaries, but they’re both beautifully shot and well worth watching.
1. Fire of Love
Katia and Maurice Krafft were intrepid volcanologists, driven by their scientific mission. They sacrificed everything to pursue their love of lava, studying volcanoes and filming their astonishing power all over the world. Unfortunately, their story comes to a predictable end — they were killed in an eruption in 1991.
Director Sara Dosa’s sublime documentary delves into the lives of these fearless explorers, making equal space for their groundbreaking research and their personal intricacies. We get to know them, their quirks, their personalities, their relationship, all while witnessing the awe-inspiring footage they were able to capture. A winner of numerous awards, Fire of Love is a mesmerizing, uplifting meditation on the wonders of our world and the people driven to study them. You’ll be drawn in by the spectacular shots of molten lava, but moved by the humanity of these two courageous pioneers. —Kristina Grosspietsch, Contributing Writer
How to watch: Fire of Love is now streaming on Disney+.
2. Free Solo
Alex Honnold making the first free solo ascent of El Capitan’s Freerider in Yosemite National Park, CA
Credit: National Geographic / Jimmy Chin
A truly staggering feat in front of and behind the camera, Free Solo will deprive you of your fingernails — it’s that nervous-making. This Oscar-winning documentary is a stunning portrait of free soloist climber Alex Honnold, who is training and preparing to climb the 3,000-feet-high El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, “the most impressive wall on Earth,” with no rope. His painstakingly planned journey is boldly captured by co-directors (and spouses) Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, along with a team of professional climbers and filmmakers.
You’ll follow Honnold as he plans every move before heading up the wall of El Cap without that all-important rope. “There’s no margin for error,” big-wall free climbing legend Tommy Caldwell says in the doc of his friend’s task. “Imagine an Olympic gold medal-level athletic achievement that, if you don’t get that golden medal, you’re gonna die. That’s pretty much what free soloing El Cap is like. You have to do it perfectly.” —Shannon Connellan, UK Editor
How to watch: Free Solo is now streaming on Disney+.
3. Get Back
John and Paul actually seem like friends in “Get Back.”
Credit: Linda McCartney / Apple Corps
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson was allowed access to 50 hours of “lost” footage from the 1970 Beatles’ documentary by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Let It Be. Jackson painstakingly went through every frame to assemble a new, vivid portrait of the legendary band’s final recording sessions; the result is this stunning, three-part series.
As Mashable’s Adam Rosenberg writes in his review, “Jackson saw something in the vaulted studio footage that painted a different picture of the Let It Be sessions than anyone outside The Beatles organization had ever known.” — S.C.
How to watch: Get Back is streaming on Disney+.
4. Summer of Soul
Sylvester “Sly” Stone performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, unearthed in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary, “Summer of Soul”
Credit: Searchlight Pictures
An incredible directorial debut from Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Summer of Soul chronicles the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a pivotal moment in Black music, history, and culture. Over the course of six weeks, legendary musicians like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, and Mahalia Jackson performed live in what’s now Marcus Garvey Park. Questlove crafted this stunning, Oscar-winning documentary from hours of archival footage that had been tucked away in a basement.
As Mashable’s Adam Rosenberg writes, “It’s a tragedy, and sadly a product of deep-seated racism in the U.S., that this beautiful expression of love and culture was completely hidden from public view for half a century. That sense of something lost is expressed implicitly again and again all throughout Summer of Soul.” —S.C.
How to watch: Summer of Soul is now streaming on Disney+.
5. Obi-Wan Kenobi: A Jedi’s Return
We don’t have a bad feeling about this.
If you want to see Hayden Christensen’s first day on set for Obi-Wan Kenobi, back in his Jedi robes as Anakin Skywalker after 17 years, you should watch the Disney+ documentary Obi-Wan Kenobi: A Jedi’s Return.
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A behind-the-scenes look at the Star Wars series, the 60-minute film directed by David Gelb takes you through the making of Obi-Wan Kenobi with director Deborah Chow and stars Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Moses Ingram, Indira Varma, Kumail Nanjiani, Rupert Friend, Joel Edgerton, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Bonnie Piesse, and more.* —S.C.
How to watch: Obi-Wan Kenobi: A Jedi’s Return is now streaming on Disney+.
6. Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy
Credit: Sunset Boulevard / Corbis via Getty Images
A long(ish) time ago, in the galaxy you currently reside in, the Star Wars trilogy changed everything — and Empire of Dreams takes you behind the scenes of it all. This 2004 documentary doesn’t cover the newer films, focusing instead on how the original trilogy changed the way movies were made. Yes, it’s a little cheesy in its production — this is an early ’00s doc — and it’s the official Lucasfilm story, so take it with a grain of salt and expect extreme reverence. But this means plenty of access to footage from the set, screen tests, early scripts, Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art, storyboards, and truly awesome videos of robotic droid testing, not to mention interviews with the big guns: George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and more.
Like Mashable’s Chris Taylor in his book (but not as in-depth), the documentary spends time exploring Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon, as well as the monumental wave of merchandise that came with the film’s popularity. Plus, you get to see the original trailer, featuring whatever footage the team had thrown together when they were still working on the movie.—S.C.
How to watch: Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy is streaming on Disney+.
7. The Rescue
The rescue that captured the world’s attention.
Credit: National Geographic
In 2018, a rescue mission captured the attention of the world when 12 boys and their football coach were trapped deep inside a flooded cave in northern Thailand. Monsoon rains had cut off the group, who were stranded in the dark two kilometres into the cave — a labyrinth of tunnels completely filled with water. Against all odds, an incredibly high-risk, complicated rescue effort was formed, and The Rescue, from Free Solo directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, tracks it all.
It’s a claustrophobic, stressful watch for the most part, and for everyone glued to the news when it was happening, it’ll bring back all those emotions of anticipation, stress, and finally, relief. The moment when British divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen first find all 13 in the cave is astounding and deeply moving. But it’s just the beginning of a perilous mission. — S.C.
How to watch: The Rescue is now streaming on Disney+.
8. Big Shot
One of the most memorable installments of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of documentary films, Big Shot tells the unbelievable story of the time a con man, John Spano, grifted his way into buying the NY Islanders. Featuring the only interview Spano has ever given on the subject, Big Shot is a fantastic film, full of ’90s nostalgia, big Long Island personalities, and a $165 million con that consequently overshadowed the NHL franchise for years. Whether you care about hockey or not is immaterial to your enjoyment of this superb film. You don’t need to like sports to be thrilled by the story of a brazen conman who almost got away with an impossible score! — K.G.
How to watch: Big Shot is now streaming on Disney+.
If you grew up smaug loudly in the car to “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast, or “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors, you have lyricist Howard Ashman to thank. Ashman is the focus of Disney documentary Howard, which explores his early life, his career-defining work with Disney while battling AIDS, and his death at the age of 40.
As Brooke Bajgrowicz writes for Mashable, “Whether you’re Disney-obsessed or not, you can get a lot out of Howard. If this film recognizes anything, it’s that story — even in the context of a documentary — is what will keep the audience engaged. And what better story is there to tell than one about a man who used songs to tell some of the greatest stories?” — S.C.
How to watch: Howard is now streaming on Disney+.
Go behind the scenes of Marvel Studios’ “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
Credit: Jasin Boland / Marvel Studios
Like the ol’ special features section of a DVD, Assembled gives you a look behind the scenes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Four releases. The series covers the making of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, WandaVision, Loki, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, What If…? , and Black Widow. You’ll be able to see how those ’60s Bewitched-style scenes in WandaVision were filmed with a live audience (and you’ll be able to see the sets and costumes in full colour), and watch Kathryn Hahn doing a full-on evil laugh take. You can watch Simu Liu in all those hectic action sequences in Shang-Chi. Loki-wise, you can see Tom Hiddleston’s early audition tapes for Thor and watch him making a speech for the crew in front of a giant tesseract cake. — S.C.
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How to watch: Assembled is now streaming on Disney+.
11. Behind the Mask
If you know nothing about Marvel Comics, want a quick overview in an hour, and don’t mind a bit of brand-led reverence, Behind the Mask is for you. Directed by Michael Jacobs, it’s probably more of a documentary for newcomers to the Marvel universe, but there’s enough compelling discussion, nostalgic interviews, and strong visuals to keep hardcore fans engaged — you’ll be revisiting a huge amount of Marvel comic frames, some of which are animated. If you don’t have the time or inclination to do what Douglas Wolk did and read every Marvel Comic ever (he’s in this film!), this might be just what you need to navigate the MCU. — S.C.
How to watch: Behind the Mask is now streaming on Disney+.
Credit: National Geographic Creative / Hugo van Lawick
Assembled from over 100 hours of footage that had never been seen before, Jane is the quintessential portrait of Dr. Jane Goodall. Thought lost until its rediscovery in 2014, the previously unseen footage was filmed by legendary wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick in the ’60s, when he was on assignment to document Goodall’s work studying chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania.
Written and directed by Brett Morgen, based on Goodall’s own writings, with a whimsical orchestral score from composer Philip Glass, Jane gives you a very close insight into Goodall’s research, her relationship with van Lawick (there’s an extremely sweet exchange of proposal via telegram), the results of human interference with animal habitats, and her decision to raise awareness of chimpanzees disappearing across the continent of Africa.— S.C.
How to watch: Jane is streaming on Disney+.
13. Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian
This is the way (it was made).
This one is made for people who really love them some Star Wars: a 10-part docuseries about the making of The Mandalorian series. Going behind the scenes of Seasons 1 and 2, Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian examines everything from the special and visual effects to the writing, acting, and directing. You’ll get little tidbits of trivia, like how Star Wars legend Dave Filoni almost didn’t get his first job at Lucasfilm, and that actor Carl Weathers’s character Greef Karga was meant to die in Season 1. — S.C.
How to watch: Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian is now streaming on Disney+.
14. Paris to Pittsburgh
Get locally empowered to take action on climate change.
Credit: RadicalMedia / National Geographic
Directed by award-winning filmmakers Sidney Beaumont and Michael Bonfiglio, Paris to Pittsburgh is about the aftermath of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2017. (One of the executive actions Biden took on his first day in office was to rejoin the Paris Agreement, back in Jan. 2021.) Citizens hit the streets, which drove a national movement in cities around America that pledged to uphold the Paris goals and commit to using 100 percent renewable energy.
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Narrated by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel‘s Rachel Brosnahan, the documentary consults climate scientists, geologists, politicians, and local pioneers to understand more about what was (and still is) at stake locally and what we can do to fight back.* —S.C.
Where to watch: Paris to Pittsburgh is now streaming on Disney+.
15. One Strange Rock + Welcome to Earth
Will Smith, vulcanologist Jeff Johnson, and explorer Erik Weihenmayer descend into a volcano to install sensors.
Credit: National Geographic for Disney+ / Kyle Christy
Will Smith teamed up with director Darren Aronofsky for two stunning documentary series that urge you not to take Earth for granted. The earlier of the two, One Strange Rock, is a 10-parter that examines the beautiful weirdness of our planet, as Aronofsky pulls together some truly beautiful footage of Earthly landscapes that look quite alien, or like something you’ve seen in a sci-fi film.
Welcome to Earth sees Smith joining up with explorers around the world to find a new appreciation for how the world connects and moves from a sensory perspective. In both series, the Hollywood-ness of it all can’t be denied, but the ambitious cinematography, swift pace, and Smith’s seemingly genuine need to understand a new perspective make these both truly engaging series about our planet. — S.C.
How to watch: One Strange Rock and Welcome to Earth are now streaming on Disney+.
16. Before the Flood
Leonardo DiCaprio has made a few documentary films about climate change. This is one of them.
Credit: RatPac Documentary Films
If you’re not into climate change documentaries helmed by celebrities, this one might not be for you. However, even if you’re not a fan of the Hollywood actor, Before the Flood presenter, and U.N. Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio, his use of star power and sizable budget to draw attention to the climate crisis in this documentary is undeniably impactful, encouraging people to admit what they don’t know and make the decision to get educated.
Released in 2016 in conjunction with the Paris Agreement, Before the Flood covers many of the same areas as Al Gore’s films, functioning as a strong primer on climate change, the damage we’ve done, and what’s likely to happen if we fail to act. Though it’s years old now, the arguments are frustratingly the same today. — S.C.
How to watch: Before the Flood is streaming on Disney+.
Oscar is a criminally adorable toddler chimpanzee living with his family unit in the rainforests of the Ivory Coast. While climbing all over his patient mother, he begins to learn the skills and tools necessary to thrive in the remote landscape. But when tragedy strikes and Oscar finds himself on his own, he’ll need help from other adult chimps to survive. But will they? Chimpanzee is a deeply moving and ultimately triumphant story that hits more of an emotional blow than you’d expect from a nature doc. Prepare to fall hopelessly in love with the curious little Oscar.
Written and directed by Planet Earth veterans Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, Chimpanzee is a standout in the Disneynature collection. — K.G.
How to watch: Chimpanzee is now streaming on Disney+.
A big journey ahead, narrated by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
This sweet film follows a herd of elephants, focusing on 40-year-old Shani and her son Jomo, as they make the eight-month, thousand-mile journey from the Okavango Delta across the Kalahari Desert to the Zambezi river. Extremely jovially narrated by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, the documentary has plenty of beautiful footage of these wondrous creatures, woven together by directors Vanessa Berlowitz and Mark Linfield. The score makes it feel super Disney, and all that footage is just made for an afternoon curled up with the whole family watching the herd roll around in the mud while Meghan announces, “It’s tiiiiiime for a pool party!” —S.C.
How to watch: Elephant is now streaming on Disney+.
19. Becoming Cousteau
Jacques Cousteau wears his iconic red diving cap aboard his ship Calypso, circa 1970s.
Credit: The Cousteau Society
A deep dive by definition, Becoming Cousteau explores the depths of the legendary oceanic explorer and filmmaker. Director Liz Garbus delves into the life of Jacques Cousteau, whose documentation of ocean creatures with newly adapted equipment changed the game. And if you’ve seen Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, you’re gotten a taste of his signature aesthetic.
Garbus was granted access to 550 hours of archival material — including over 100 hours of audio journal entries and interviews from collaborators and crew members — to create this documentary, and she brings to life his innovation and dedication to environmentalism, alongside his family life and creation of The Cousteau Society. —S.C.
How to watch: Becoming Cousteau is now streaming on Disney+.
20. Secrets of the Whales
An orca using a unique hunting technique: taking stingrays off the bottom of the seabed
Credit: National Geographic for Disney+ / Kina Scollay).
When I tell you the cinematography of the National Geographic series Secrets of the Whales is stunning, it’s an understatement 10,000 leagues deep. Filmed over three years, this four-part documentary explores whale culture through orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals, and sperm whales, including looking at how each family speaks a unique language, and how whales experience love, joy, and grief. Narrated by Sigourney Weaver, this is the kind of documentary you should watch if you’re done with people for a bit but want to find some kind of human connection with these incredible underwater animals. —S.C.
How to watch: Secrets of the Whales is now streaming on Disney+.
21. The Flagmakers
Clocking in at a tight 35 minutes, The Flagmakers is a short doc that packs a poetic punch. One of the most successful American flag manufacturers in the country, a company called Eder Flag, employs mostly refugees and immigrants. In a large warehouse in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, people from all backgrounds come together to make the stars and stripes, an enduring American symbol. The film looks at this miniature melting pot from all angles, exploring the employees’ relationships with each other, with their pasts, and with the United States. A lovely, complex, and rewarding watch. — K.G.
How to watch: The Flagmakers is now streaming on Disney+.
22. Expedition Amelia
In 1937, just before she was scheduled to finish her groundbreaking trip around the globe, Amelia Earhart’s plane disappeared in the Pacific without a trace. In 2019, Robert Ballard, the renowned explorer who discovered the Titanic, set sail to a remote Pacific atoll in an attempt to solve this enduring mystery.
Narrated by Allison Janney, Expedition Amelia is a touching, informative, and enthralling story about the aviator who captured the hearts and minds of a nation, and the man determined to discover what happened to her. A fitting, fascinating tribute to the courageous woman who has inspired adventurers and trailblazers for close to a century. — K.G.
How to watch: Expedition Amelia is now streaming on Disney+.
23. Hostile Planet
Disney+ is home to a truly endless catalog of National Geographic nature docs. If you want to see the most extreme animals the world has to offer, look no further than Hostile Planet, a docuseries fittingly narrated by Bear Grylls about the resilient creatures who make their lives in the harshest environments on the planet. With gorgeous cinematography, jaw-dropping nature facts, a suspenseful soundtrack, you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat from this exciting show that absolutely panders to thrill seekers and drama-lovers. So, obviously, we’re on board! — K.G.
How to watch: Hostile Planet is now streaming on Disney+.
24. Apollo: Missions to the Moon
For the space fan who doesn’t know much about the Apollo missions past Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, look no further than this NatGeo special. Covering Apollo 1 through Apollo 17, this doc is a spectacular run-down of the massive paradigm shift that was the Apollo missions and the race to land humans on the moon. Thanks to archival footage, you’ll get to experience the elation of watching these ships soar into the stars for the first time, to witness the power of this impossible dream coming true. A fantastic watch for all lovers of science, space, and human ingenuity. — K.G.
How to watch: Apollo: Missions to the Moon is now streaming on Disney+.
25. Science Fair
The International Science and Engineering Fair brings in over 1,500 students from 70+ countries; Science Fair follows just nine of these smart and curious kids. From Anjali from Kentucky, who is trying to find a better way to detect arsenic in water, to Myllena and Gabriel from Brazil, teens attempting to stop the spread of Zika in their communities, you’ll be inspired by and invested in these science fair hopefuls. Science Fair is an absolute crowd-pleaser from Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster, and Jeffrey Plunkett. In a compact 90 minutes, you’ll laugh and cry alongside these teens as they work toward their dreams. And you just might find yourself pondering a sudden career switch to a STEM field when it’s over. — K.G.
How to watch: Science Fair is now streaming on Disney+.
*Asterisks indicate the writeup is adapted from another article.
UPDATE: Aug. 10, 2023, 3:07 p.m. EDT This post has been updated to reflect the current catalog on Disney+.