The chance to watch The Mandalorian, hit Marvel movies and episodes of The Simpsons on tap may have grabbed the headlines when Disney Plus first launched, but the new platform isn’t just about telling fictional stories. There are also loads of exciting documentaries to enjoy – whatever your interests, you’re bound to find something that appeals.
Naturally, Disney isn’t shy about talking about releases from its own stable, so there are plenty of quality documentaries about its rich animation history (Waking Sleeping Beauty, Frank and Ollie), theme parks (The Imagineering Story), and the wider Disney family (Star Wars making-of Empire of Dreams).
But, thanks to the Mouse House's 2019 acquisition of 20th Century Fox, Disney Plus also hosts a vast array of impressive factual programming from National Geographic – taking in everything from outer space (Apollo: Missions to the Moon) to the deepest oceans (Titanic: 20 Years Later).
In fact, there’s so much available we've assembled this list of the 10 best documentaries to watch on Disney Plus, ahead of the release of Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian on May 4. Read on – you might learn something…
The Imagineering Story
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The coronavirus may have closed Disney’s theme parks for the time being, but you can experience some of the magic at a safe distance in this excellent six-part documentary series. Helmed by Leslie Iwerks (director of The Pixar Story, also available on Disney Plus), The Imagineering Story goes behind the scenes to tell the history of the various Disneylands, while revealing how the vision of the so-called ‘Imagineers’ brings the the state-of-the-art theme park attractions to life.
Alex Honnold’s death-defying mission to complete a solo free climb – y’know, without safety ropes – of iconic Californian rock formation El Capitan provides the dramatic anchor of this captivating, Oscar-winning documentary. Not only are Honnold’s vertigo-inducing, superhuman exploits on the rock face utterly mind-boggling, the remarkable feats of the camera crew who recorded his adventure are almost as awe-inspiring in their own right. The ultimate movie cliffhanger.
Empire of Dreams
This epic two-and-a-half-hour documentary debuted with the Star Wars trilogy’s DVD release in 2004, and is a definitive guide to the making of the first three classic movies. Alongside interviews with most of the key players (including George Lucas, the stars, department heads, studio execs and many more), it mixes goosebump-inducing behind-the-scenes material, with commentary on the genre-defining saga’s extensive cultural legacy. Arguably one of the five greatest feature-length Star Wars offerings of all time.
Waking Sleeping Beauty
Now that Disney owns Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar – as well as boasting a highly successful raft of homegrown movies – it’s easy to forget the studio hasn’t always been such a reliable hit machine. In the 1980s, however, Disney’s animation wing hit the skids with the less-than-stellar likes of Basil the Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company. This documentary tells the story of the studio’s early-1990s return to form, as studio exec (and future Dreamworks/Quibi (opens in new tab) founder) Jeffrey Katzenberg ushered in a successful run of animated hits including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King.
Frank and Ollie
Walt himself tended to hog the limelight, but the so-called ‘Nine Old Men’ – Disney’s most-trusted group of animators – deserve their fair share of the credit for the studio becoming a Hollywood behemoth. This 1995 documentary focuses on Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two men who worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Bambi and pretty much every other Disney classic until the early 1980s – as well as writing animation bible The Illusion of Life. A must for fans of Disney animation.
Think back to your high school days and chances are you were more interested in sports or videogames than getting involved in top scientific research. That’s not the case for everyone, however…
This 2018 documentary follows nine teens at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles – and they inadvertently make the rest of us feel we should have worked a little bit harder. As the kids show off remarkable prowess in high-powered disciplines like aeronautical engineering, the film is unashamed about putting their remarkable achievements on a pedestal. In Science Fair, the geeks really do inherit the Earth.
Before the Flood
Celebrity-fronted ‘issues’ documentaries don’t always have the best track record, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s passionate climate change exposé is a brilliant exception to the rule. Traveling around the planet (DiCaprio does acknowledge the size of his carbon footprint), the Wolf of Wall Street star examines both sides of the global warming argument, from melting ice caps to aggressive fossil fuel extraction. He also squeezes in interviews with political heavyweights such as President Barack Obama along the way. Perhaps the most pertinent takeaway from this 2016 doc, however, is that the world has seen so little improvement since.
Apollo: Missions to the Moon
The story of how Nasa put 12 men on the surface of the Moon between 1969 and 1972 has been told many times before, but it’s a tale that never gets old. Released to mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first lunar steps, this National Geographic documentary is built entirely around archive footage. As director Tom Jennings assembles material from Nasa, TV networks and beyond into a linear timeline, the lack of modern-day talking heads gives it an intriguingly hindsight-free perspective, allowing you to come to your own conclusions about one of humanity’s greatest ever achievements.
Titanic: 20 Years Later
Winning a record-breaking haul of Oscars and becoming the self-proclaimed “king of the world” didn’t end James Cameron’s interest in the Titanic. Made two decades after his hit movie, this National Geographic documentary follows the legendary Terminator/Aliens director as he returns to the world’s most famous shipwreck – and learns what the box office smash got right and wrong. Turns out the sinking may not have been entirely accurate…
Atlantis Rising, where Cameron goes looking for the mythical underwater kingdom, is also available on Disney Plus.
No list of top factual offerings on Disney Plus would be complete without a nature doc – after all, there are loads to choose from. But we’ve plumped for this 2020 movie about a herd of elephants making their way across the Kalahari desert. The filmmaking team turn the adventures of Gaia, Shani, Jomo and friends into a coherent – occasionally tear-jerking – narrative while making the most of some stunning natural world photography. But for all that, the documentary will probably be most remembered for marking the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle’s, return to the screen. She donated her fee to the Elephants Without Borders charity.