We already know he’s a gifted orator. He’s also a pretty nifty basketball player. And don’t forget his status as a best-selling author.
Now, with the arrival of the five-episode Netflix nature documentary series “Our Great National Parks,” you can add voiceover artist to the long list of things Barack Obama is uncommonly good at.
Five years removed from his two terms in the White House, he’s no longer our commander in chief. But there’s an argument to be made that he should be considered our documentarian in chief — no Senate confirmation necessary.
Complemented by stunning nature photography and masterful storytelling, “Our Great National Parks” is an Attenborough-level effort — entertaining, informative and awe-inspiring, all at once.
It’s also staggeringly ambitious in scope, assembled from photography captured during 33 expeditions to 10 countries across five continents. Altogether, it took 1,500 days of filming in wild places, plus a year of research and a total of 392 days in travel-related COVID-19 quarantine.
As with all examples of great storytelling, however, it comes off as effortless — both to make and to watch.
For Obama, it’s personal, too. As he explains in the opening of the first episode — shot in Hawaii, of course — his mother often visited the now-protected Hunauma Bay for a few quiet moments while she was pregnant with him.
“She used to joke that was the reason I was so calm,” Obama says. “I spent a lot of time here even before I arrived in the world.”
But “Our Great National Parks” isn’t about him. It’s about something much, much bigger. Fittingly arriving just ahead of Earth Day, which is April 22, it’s about “our shared birthright,” as he puts it.
That being said, it’s important to note the “our” in the film’s title doesn’t mean “Americans.”
“Our Great National Parks” does visit some of America’s most well-known wild places, such as Yellowstone. The entirety of Episode 4 is dedicated to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in California. But in Episode 1 alone — a global overview titled “Worlds of Wonder” — it takes us to Africa, to Japan and Australia.
Additionally, Episode 2 focuses on Chilean Patagonia, Episode 3 on Kenya and Episode 5 on Indonesia.
Which is to say, there’s a wonderful exoticism to it all — which is also to say there’s a lot to learn here.
For example: A three-toed sloth is essentially its own ecosystem. Alligators basically have sonar. And monkeys in Japan are perfectly capable of taking a deer for a joyride.
OK, that last bit is more cute than informative. There’s a lot of “awwww” embedded in the series — although it mostly avoids the nature-doc pitfall of projecting human emotions on animals.
Parents of sensitive children should be warned that it features some scenes of animal predation; they should be prepared to have the whole circle of life talk. Still, there’s enough warm-and-fuzziness there to harken back to the sort of programming families of the 1970s and 1980s might’ve watched together at 6 p.m. on Sunday evenings.
Think of it as a much more modern, and much more slickly produced, version of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” or one of those “True Life Adventures” that would air as part of “The Wonderful World of Disney.”
(Speaking of Disney, its latest Disneynature film, “Polar Bear,” arrives April 22 on Disney+, and it is also highly recommendable.)
While “Our Great National Parks” takes occasional opportunities to advocate conservation efforts, it’s also, thankfully, entirely nonpolitical. In addition to being refreshing, that’s also something of a minor miracle in these hyperpartisan days.
Taken as a whole, the project feels important, maybe even historical. I’ve got a feeling “Our Great Natural Parks” will be looked back upon by future historians as a vital document, both from a natural history standpoint and a presidential history standpoint.
Of course, “Our National Parks” isn’t the first time a former White House occupant has made a noteworthy nature documentary. Al Gore did it first, and he won an Oscar for his trouble.
But as impassioned and important as Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” was, it was also essentially a glorified PowerPoint presentation.
“Our Great National Parks,” on the other hand, has much more to offer. It is bigger in scope. It is grander of vision. And chances are it will entertain and inform far more people.
Mike Scott can be reached at [email protected].