Richard Linklater’s 3rd animated feature is a nostalgic wonder.
There’s a little bit of “A Christmas Story” inside “Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood,” as we get Jack Black narrating the life of a kid in Houston, Texas in 1969 before the Apollo 11 mission. The boy would eventually grow up with Black’s voice, and he narrates how he has a big family, how his father had the skills of a hardworking family man as a NASA employee and conman trying to save some money, how TV shows and summertime activities made his youth so exciting. But those moments are hiccups compared to his top secret mission to test a rocket ship on the moon before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
The reason why NASA would require a kid to be their test monkey is because they made a lunar module “a little too small,” and Stanley (Milo Coy), the main child of “Apollo 10 ½,” is the right size. Could it really be happening for him? Or is it a childhood fantasy for him? Either way, Richard Linklater uses inspiration from his childhood to tell the boy’s story like life in the late 60s was.
The movie is also Linklater’s third entry in which he rotoscopes the live-action actors into animated caricatures after “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.” It’s another ambitious project of his in which everything is traced over with animation. There’s the people, the buildings, the classic TV shows (“The Twilight Zone,” “Bewitched,” etc.), the classic movies (“The Sound of Music,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” etc.), and the Apollo 11 mission. They all look dazzling, nearly reminding me of how Kenneth Branagh allowed the black and white characters to have a colored screen, and Judi Dench’s glasses having reflections. It’s utterly amazing that all three of his rotoscoped features have advanced a quantum leap forward.
There can be too much narration of everything, but with Black’s voice and Linklater’s writing, it’s all presented with style and nostalgia. It’s even amazing how he chooses to sync the fantasy mission (that is if it was a fantasy) with the actual mission. It runs for 90 minutes, so it saves us some time. Plus, how often do we get to see the Landing through Linklater’s eyes?
The movie’s cast also includes Zachary Levi and Glen Powell as two NASA agents who recruit Stanley for their mission, Lee Eddy as his mother who has her ways of saving money on dinner with ham, and Bill Wise (a Linklater regular) plays his father who has his moments.
But it’s really Black and Coy who both carry the film with their tones and acting. Black (whom Linklater previously guided in “School of Rock” and “Bernie”) narrates the film with a low-key and honest charisma. And Coy has the youth and mannerisms of a 60s kid. It’s probably a stupid thing for me to say, since lots of movies portray kids in the 60s, but looking at him in a Texan sense is considerate.
It’s usually fascinating when filmmakers are inspired by their childhood to make select movies. Linklater expressed the 70s in “Dazed and Confused” and then, the 80s in “Everybody Wants Some.” and now in “Apollo 10 ½,” he expresses the 60s in animation. And he expresses the period quite well. Sometimes, it’s funny, other times, it’s committed, and throughout, we’re able to see the times and characters and what they see on TV and what history gives them.
For those of you in a different generation, before you see this, you have to see how he presented “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” before “Apollo 10 ½” takes the rotoscope genre forward. And I’m glad it’s not self-congratulatory about it.
Now Playing in Select Theaters
Streaming on Netflix April 1st.