Otter 501

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Otter 501 Movie Poster Image
Informative otter docu best for older animal-loving kids.
  • G
  • 2012
  • 87 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Otter 501 is like a doctoral dissertation on otters; kids will learn nonstop facts about the cuddly sea creatures, from their habitats, the history of otter hunting that led to their endangerment, their life cycles, eating, grooming, hunting, mating practices, and more.

Positive Messages

The movie's overriding message is environmental: Humans need to take better care of their waterways to preserve ocean life, especially the endangered animals that are losing their way due to pollution and the disruption of their natural habitat. Through Katie, the filmmakers also pose a challenge for viewers to get involved and learn more about otters (in particular) and how they can help the rescue centers (like the Monterey Bay Aquarium) that save and adopt otter orphans.

Positive Role Models

Katie is a committed and selfless animal lover (and marine biologist) who volunteers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and immerses herself in the aquarium's otter program. She explains everything that's going so audiences understand why otters are more than just cute and cuddly.

Violence & Scariness

A dead otter mom is shown in the water with her otter pup clinging to her body. She has a huge gash on her middle, and the scientist explains that she was killed by a shark. Later it's explained that the pup likely won't survive, either, since he was deprived of his mother's milk and warmth for too long. Katie is very sad when she talks about it.

Sexy Stuff

One brief discussion of how a territorial male wants to mate, even though the female is starving and still nursing her pup. If she mates, she'll stop lactating, and the pup might die.


Katie frequently uses Facebook, her iPhone, and what looks like a Macbook with the Apple logo covered.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Otter 501 is a nature documentary with a semi-scripted framing story/character instead of the typical narrator. Like most nature documentaries, the film contains some potentially disturbing scenes -- like of a crying otter pup clinging to its dead mother's body. The otter mom's shark bite is shown, and the audience is told that the pup is unlikely to survive. And there are other sad moments when otters don't make it or are lost and presumed dead. Ultimately, though, this is an incredibly educational documentary about otters' life cycle and their importance as one of the ocean's most interesting and important species. Younger otter lovers may not have the attention span needed to follow some of the movie's longer explanations, but science- and animal-oriented tweens are sure to pick up lots of great facts.

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What's the story?

In OTTER 501 -- a documentary with a seemingly scripted framing story -- viewers are introduced to the Sea Otter Research and Conservation program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium via a fresh-faced young marine biologist named Katie (Katie Pofahl) who's visiting California from Wisconsin for six months. While in California, she encounters a stranded, orphaned otter the aquarium calls Otter 501. Attached to the cute and cuddly otter, Katie volunteers at the aquarium, where she learns all about the history and significance of sea otters, which were once plentiful but are now endangered.

Is it any good?

Despite the appealing central character and the adorable animals on display, Otter 501 requires patience and a long attention span to make it worthwhile. Even though Katie is young and spends a lot of time sharing her experiences on Facebook and via text, it's obvious that a lot of what she's saying is scripted, because it sounds almost like she's acting instead of just being herself. It takes a while to get used to the movie's hybrid format; those who prefer a traditional, distinguished-sounding narrator might be confused or bothered by Katie's presence.

In a more traditional documentary, the filmmakers would have interviewed the aquarium staff and spoken to various academics who could put the historical significance of sea otters in context. In Otter 501, Katie and computer graphics and archive photos provide the exposition whenever the camera isn't focused on the otters themselves. Observant audiences will learn a great deal about what makes otters such a miraculous species (did you know the great otter hunt of the 19th century helped finance the Industrial Revolution?), but younger kids (and some parents) might find the nearly 90-minute exploration of the endangered species a bit of a stretch.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the enduring popularity of animal-specific nature documentaries. Once shown only as TV specials, now there are more and more wildlife documentaries. Which ones capture animals the best, and which ones make animals seem more human than animal?

  • Otter 501 is different than most, because instead of a narrator or filmmaker explaining events, we learn about the animals through the character of Katie. Was it confusing to figure out whether Katie was "real" or not? Do you prefer a traditional narrator or this style of documentary?

  • How do you think viewers can take Katie's message about saving the otters to heart? In what way can your family help the cause of caring for endangered species?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love animals

Themes & Topics

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