Wild Life

In 2022, outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard made headlines when he announced he was gifting the $3 billion worth of his company to fight climate change.  Now directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ("Free Solo," "The Rescue") dive deep into the story of the friend and business partner, Doug Tompkins, who inspired Chouinard’s philanthropy with his quest to save the region Yvon named his company after in “Wild Life.”

Laura's Review: B+

This is not only an incredible story of environmental activism, but one of scrappy, rugged individuals not only scaling physical heights but succeeding against all odds in the business world.  And it’s a love story.

It is Tompkins’ second wife Kris, who is actually the central character here, introduced in unimaginable grief at the 2015 funeral service for her husband in Patagonia, Chile, where they had made their home.  Kris will tell us that while her overpowering inclination was just to curl up and drift away with Doug, she got a note from a friend that outlined two options – live off her story and mourn for the remainder of her life or get to work.  She chose the latter, taking her and Doug’s years of hard fought negotiations to designate millions of acres of land they’d purchased with additional government acreage as eight national parks.  The incredible wealth built through several businesses and Doug’s purchase of land from Argentina’s border out to the ocean caused Chileans to distrust their motives, branding them ‘Ugly Americans’ and sending death threats.  They also faced the economic reality that Chile is an extraction economy, its chief industry mining, a natural foe of environmentalism.

Filmmaker Jimmy Chin accompanies Kris and old friend Rick Ridgeway and others as they explore areas Kris had never seen before.  As we view stunning landscape, the documentary begins to fill in biographical gaps, recounting how the seventeen year-old New Englander Doug rejected school and drove west with climbing gear and a surf board, but little money or plan.  He was picked up hitchhiking by Susie Buell who found him arrogant but interesting.  She would become his first wife and while he founded The North Face to supply his climbing clients, he would go on to sell it as she founded Esprit.   But Doug’s ideology began to change and when he balked at the environmental harm caused by the fashion industry, Susie would buy him out and the marriage ended.

Meanwhile his friend Yvon Chouinard, who tells us how Doug started by getting a hot dog stand franchise in Yosemite, hired a young wild child named Kris, a barefoot surfer girl, to work at his company, Chouinard Equipment.  Considered an idea man with no concept of how to get to market, Yvon would turn to Kris when he wanted to make an outdoor sporting jacket.  She would eventually become the CEO of Patagonia, and, in her forties, would meet Doug Tomkins during a trip to Chile.  Rick Ridgeway, a friend of both, recalls getting phone calls from each about the other and while many in their circle would worry for Kris, they would end up being amazed by Doug’s romantic devotion to her, a side of him they’d never seen.

Chin and Vasarhelyi, who recreated the Thai cave rescue so astoundingly, recreate Doug’s fateful and harrowing last kayaking trip, which his friend Ridgeway barely survived.  Weston Boyles, the young friend who was with Doug as he succumbed to hyperthermia, describes a man looking over the waves off into the horizon, one with land he so loved.  In the end, Kris would take Doug’s dream even further, reintroducing over a dozen species, including the jaguar, back into the Chilean wilderness.  Working with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, she fulfilled their goal in an all-or-nothing gambit to establish eight national parks.  

Robin's Review: B-

Douglas and Kristen Tompkins were environmental activists and involved in such successful companies as North Face, Esprit and Patagonia, But, their biggest contribution by far is the purchase of large swaths of land in Chile and Argentina to be turned into national parks in “Wild Life.”

Documentary directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, with the extensive help of Kristen Tompkins and other players in the story, actually tell two stories. One is about the Tompkins, their environmental causes and philanthropies with others buying intro the national parks plan. The other is the conspicuous lack of the Chilean people actually involved in the project.

The filmmakers tell Doug’s and the others’ story of their early days in mountain climbing and oudoor sports and their entry into the clothing biz that catered to the young and affluent sportsters. They built their personal fortunes, lived the high life, and then, seeing the problems of the world, turned to philanthropic efforts to save the earth.

They began with the purchase of undeveloped land in the mountains of Chile and financing sustainable farming. As the years pass, they purchased more and more property with the aim of building a privately-funded national park system that extended into neighboring Argentina. The sustainable farming turned out to not be sustainable without a lot of money poured in.

One fascinating aspect of “Wild Life” is the sense of entitlement the Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, have for themselves and their lofty plans to save the earth through capitalism. It is an honest display of their philanthropy but, to me, saving the earth is a good thing, but saving the indigenous people of this earth is too.

National Geographic opened "Wild Life" in select theaters on 4/14/23.  Theater listings may be found here.  It begins streaming on Disney+ on 5/26/23.