Documentary Review — “Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us”


Documentary filmmaker Louis Schwartzeberg, of DisneyNature’s “Wings of Life,” didn’t need to add “The Magic Beneath Us” to the title of his “Fantastic Fungi.”

We were already thinking, “Oh, it’s a magic mushroom movie.” He might as well have titled it “Shrooms,” am I right?

And yes, this documentary about the many beautiful and often utilitarian types of mushrooms on Planet Earth gets around to the “mind/consciousness expanding” corner of the story. Not every expert here counts that as the source of their fandom.

But in the latter third of this eye-opening and sometimes eye-popping film, we do hear from our fair share of long-bearded prophets from the ’60s and ’70s, extolling the virtues and even the biochemistry of that part of fungal world of edibles, inedibles, decay-inducing, pollution-eating lifeforms of the Basidiomycota and Agaricomycetes divisions.

They exist “somewhere between plants and animals,” one of the legion of professional and amateur mycologists (mushroom experts) weighing in here declare. And they have uses all across the spectrum, from basic biodiversity to culinary treats to the darned thing growing out of that rotten log that could cure cancer and treat Alzheimer’s.

TED talkers (Paul Stamet) and foodies (Eugenia Bone, Michael Pollan) sing the song of ‘shrooms — no, they do NOT like them so labeled, connotations you see — and immerse us in the world these fungi made, and how humanity might have been shaped by our primate ancestors ingesting mushrooms that promoted Big Thinking.

There we are, back to the ‘shrooms thing.

Stamet is the central interview subject here, an amateur mycologist who has turned himself into one of the world’s leading experts in the field. His TED talk was “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” and he makes a great case.

And yeah, some of his initial interest might have come from the psychedelic side of things. The film’s overall “heightened consciousness” of “profound experiences” bent spins out of that.

But this movie is fascinating on a lot of levels, not just what the Mayans and Native Americans of North America knew about fungi with mind-expanding properties.

Schwartzberg points his time-lapse camera at fungi growing, devouring rotting flora and (a dead rat) fauna, at stunning bioluminescent mushrooms and this “icicle-like” mushroom, Hericium erinaceus, “Lion’s mane,” whose nerve-growth stimulating properties could hold a meaningful treatment for Alzheimer’s.

We’re told that research and breakthroughs in the study of mushrooms make preserving old growth forests a matter of human survival, and we’re soberly reminded that every mass extinction event on Earth has had one certain survivor. The damned mushrooms will be here long after we’re gone.

There’s a poetic, credulous narration read by Oscar winner Brie Larson that summons up “the pulse of eternal knowledge” that grows out of the rot and hurls spores into the air, and makes a fantastic pizza topping along the way.

The viewer can bring his or her own skepticism to the “cured my stuttering” and “cured my mom’s cancer” claims of Stamets, while still hoping the hard research into applying these “natural” cures to what ails us proceeds with all haste, with as little involvement by Big Pharma as possible.

If you can grow something to treat your anxiety in your compost heap, who needs Bayer, Merck, GlaxoSmith this or CVS that?

The answers to what ails us might be right there on the forest floor — mushrooms, not just for Pizza Hut and Timothy Leary disciples any more.


MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Paul Stamets, Mary P. Cosimano, Andrew Weil, Suzanne Simard, Michael Pollan, many others — narrated by Brie Larson

Credits: Directed by Louie Schwartzberg, script by Mark Monroe. A Moving Art release.

Running time: 1:21

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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