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Fantastic Fungi
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by Jay Seaver

"The fungi are at the very least fascinating."
3 stars

"Fantastic Fungi" is put together so well that it may take some sort of interruption while watching it to notice that it has seemingly gone from "nifty science documentary" to "cult recruitment video" without causing whiplash. It's impressive editing, actually, when a film can make you sit up and wonder just how you got somewhere seemingly so far from where you started, and then look at it in whole and say, actually, that's not so big a trip after all.

It starts out as a sort of primer on mycology, mushrooms, and fungi in general, pointing out that fungi are both the oldest and youngest, and largest/smallest species on Earth, and have multiple roles to play in holding various types of ecology together, from breaking dead plants and animals down into their component pieces to forming underground networks that allow trees and other plant life in an area to share resources. Some of this will be familiar from high school biology classes; other bits may not be, and there's a bit on how, more than is the case in many fields, mycology is often advanced by civilian scientists.

You can get that out of a book, but the film directed by Louie Schwartzberg and written by Mark Monroe makes great use of its medium with terrific visuals and animation, with both digital imagery and time-lapse photography used exceptionally well for this fairly small-scale documentary, at points apparently augmenting each other without the digital work taking anything from the impressive photography of these peculiar life-forms. What's especially notable is how clearly and impressively some of these sequences work as explainers; a repeated motif makes the soil transparent while the air above is a brownish fog, demonstrating how the underground mycelial networks extend and connect tree roots, for example, an image that is cool but not overwhelming.

Brie Larson narrates the movie in character as the world's fungi, but the less-well-known people who populate it are generally a genial bunch, eager to pass on knowledge and well-aware of what an unusual field they are in. Most of the screen time goes to Paul Stamets, a largely self-taught mycologist who spent years as a logger getting an up-close look at how fungi operate in the forest, and it's not a bad decision; he's both down-to-earth and authoritative, looking well at home no matter where the movie finds him. Though he is far from the only expert on display, he's the one who appears as the film moves through various subjects, uniting them.

That includes what are often referred to as "magic mushrooms", whose hallucinogenic and medicinal properties become the primary focus of the films last half hour or so, and it's there that the film often seems to become a bit unmoored: Stamets and the others interviewed during this portion of the film take on the zeal of believers rather than the enthusiasm of scientists (whether professional or amateur), the claims become wilder, and the evidence more anecdotal. The imagery shifts from illustrating science to psychedelic imagery, reflecting the subtle but important shift from "how this works" to "what this does". All of this material may be true, but it feels less solid, though Schwartzberg and his team have done a good job of laying the sort of foundation that lets them stretch a little.

The information in that last act is potentially valuable and enlightening, though its enthusiasm for how perfectly useful fungi can be for people is sometimes a bit in conflict with how other parts of the film are careful not to ascribe intent to nature. The film gets there well enough that its issues may be simply the result of encountering an overly-developed skepticism; it's a sleek, informative, well-presented introduction to the topic otherwise.

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originally posted: 03/27/20 11:27:15
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Directed by
  Louie Schwartzberg

Written by
  Mark Monroe


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