The Biggest Little Farm Probably Didn’t Need a Return

Rating: 5/10

The 2018 documentary The Biggest Little Farm is a carefully paced, thoughtful exploration of the joys and difficulties of a biodiverse, ecologically sound approach to farming. In 2011, nature photographer John Chester and his wife, Molly, an organic chef, lived in a tiny apartment in Los Angeles.  When the constant barking of their dog, Todd, distured the neighbors, their landlord kicked them out. They decided that was an opportunity to pursue their dream of creating a natural farm. John lovingly films the arrival of baby ducks, cows, and pigs on Apricot Lane Farm. He also captures their struggle to deal with a range of pests from snails to gophers, who seem determined to eat them out of house and, well, farm.

The message of The Biggest Little Farm is that nature is unpredictable and unruly, but if you have faith in it and listen, you can work with it rather than against it to build a farm and a life. At 92 minutes, the film is satisfyingly complete. Nonetheless, earlier this year John created a 30-minute sequel of sorts for Disney+

The Farm Goes On

I say it’s a sequel “of sorts” because the short documentary is less a follow-up to the original than a restatement of it. Around a third of the run-time is a recapitulation of the story of the founding of Apricot Lane, albeit with a good bit of the narrative excised.

You see again the hard, unforgiving soil which greets the family when they step onto their land. But you don’t get the backstory about Todd and their LA apartment. You see them wait for cow poop to fertilize the soil. But you don’t get introduced to Alan York, the couple’s mentor who taught them about non-chemical farming and who encouraged them to plant seventy varieties of fruit trees rather than just three.

The Return includes updates of sorts to the original film. Emma, the Chester’s first pig and a champion breeder, waddles back into the narrative. She is fertilized after a year’s rest, and turns out to no longer be the excellent mother she once was. A lamb named Mo is abandoned by its mother and John brings it to recuperate in the house. There’s much adorable footage of it climbing onto furniture and eating things it shouldn’t. And John and Molly’s son, whose birth was documented in the first film, grows from a toddler to a young child. He helps around the farm, gathering eggs, feeding Mo, and taste-testing all the fruit.

The focus on young creatures of various species points, perhaps, to themes of renewal or of generational transition. But those ideasnever really gets fleshed out.

Instead, the film’s most interesting material involves the Chester’s realization that they can use predators as natural pesticides in a range of ways. Ducks eat the snails feeding on citrus leaves. Hawks control the starling population feeding on their fruit. Even the coyotes ravaging the chickens have a place in the ecosystem. After the Chesters put a guard dog in the chicken coop, the coyotes head elsewhere for food—which means they hunt the gophers who are eating the Chesters’ roots.

More of the Same Diversity

It’s exhilarating to watch the John and Mary discover how to help nature balance itself. But it was more exhilarating when it was spun out at greater length, using much of the same footage, in the original documentary. John’s internal struggle over whether to shoot the coyotes attacking their chickens is completely excised, for example, though that’s at the emotional center of the story that The Return is trying (haphazardly) to retell.

For those who saw the original film, much of The Return is going to be a less engaging, less perfectly balanced retread. But for those who didn’t see the original, it’s going to feel frustrating that the movie is focusing on the only moderately interesting fate of Emma the pig, rather than providing more details about how the farm was actually built.

You can see why the mouse execs wanted to get the Chesters for their streaming platform. The original documentary, with its positive ecological message, cute animals, and wholesomely attractive protagonists, is  a perfect fit for the Disney brand.

Unfortunately, though, the Chesters already told their story well, and they don’t have another. Redoing The Biggest Little Farm for Disney+ may make marketing sense, but as an aesthetic endeavor, it’s a misstep. The Return is stuck between trying to redo first documentary for a new audience and trying to update it for old friends. It feels like the Chesters tried to force the new documentary to grow, rather than letting it take shape organically.

If you’re new to The Biggest Little Farm, you should probably watch the original rather than the retread. And if you’re familiar with the original, and want more—the best bet, alas, is just to watch the original again.

The Biggest Little Farm: The Return is streaming on Disney+.

Noah Berlatsky
+ posts