CAST: Milo Coy, Jack Black, Glen Powell, Zachary Levi, Josh Wiggins, Lee Eddy, Bill Wise, Natalie L’Amoreaux, Jessica Brynn Cohen, Sam Chipman, Danielle Guilbot
RUNNING TIME: 98 mins
BASICALLY…: In 1969, a young boy (Coy) is selected for a covert mission to the moon…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
After watching Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, you’d have the sneaking suspicion that its director, writer and producer Richard Linklater is a really, really big fan of the year 1969. You’d be right in your suspicions – the filmmaker was around eight or nine that year, so it obviously holds a special place in his childhood – but then again, given the historic events that occurred that year, just about anyone would look back on that year fondly, even if they weren’t alive at that point.
The height of the Space Age obviously came with the Apollo 11 moon landings that summer, but while they certainly form a major chunk of Linklater’s focus, his intentions with his 21st film are to present a heavily nostalgic portrait of what life was like for a kid like him living around that time, before forming a fantastical anecdote based on everything going on around him. The result is a charming, wide-eyed and gorgeously animated slice-of-life picture that is pure Linklater, mixing historical vignettes with a whimsical adventure fit for children and even some of the more imaginative adults.
Our anchor throughout the film is Jack Black, who provides narration throughout the entire film as the adult version of Stanley (voiced by Milo Coy), a young boy growing up in the late 1960s in Houston, Texas. A significant portion of the movie is dedicated to Black’s Stanley describing his childhood in great detail, from the TV shows he and his siblings would gather round their television set to watch, to the various activities that were immediately available to him and other kids at the time, such as swimming in chlorine-ridden pools or imagining baseball teams made up of famous players. Stanley also recounts the importance of NASA in his and many other families’ lives, with their headquarters located nearby which is where people like Stanley’s father work as a scientists, suit designers, or in his father’s case mere pencil-pushers. The film does have a narrative hook, though, in the form of two government agents (Zachary Levi and Glen Powell) approaching young Stanley to recruit him for a secret mission to the moon, just before Neil Armstrong and the others are launched on their own history-making mission.
Whether or not the latter strand is the work of an overly-imaginative child is hardly Linklater’s main concern, nor should it be yours, because Apollo 10½: A Space Age Adventure is one of those movies that just allows you to sit back and absorb the loving re-enactment of late-60s culture through the eyes of a kid simply living through it. With Black’s narration guiding us through, the film takes us on a strongly detailed, almost documentarian journey through life in this era, getting into numerous forms of culture (nearly every popular TV show at the time is listed, and even every notable board game), significant historic events (beyond everything at NASA, there’s the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of notable political figures, and the growing hippie movement), and outdated ways of life (physical punishments for misbehaving children, driving while drinking, and lighting up cigarettes pretty much anywhere). Linklater’s approach is unmistakably semi-autobiographical, with long passages sometimes reading like a visual memoir, but always centred around his own perspective that is, for dramatic purposes, told through the lens of fictional creations. Nonetheless, there is so much of Linklater’s straightforward and nostalgic personality in every frame of the movie, which even when things steer more towards fantasy still manages to retain its grounded and generally likable tone.
It would be a crime to neglect the fact that this is also an animated film, and a rather stunningly made on at that. Linklater applies the same rotoscoping technique he previously used for Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly (for those unfamiliar, rotoscoping is the act of drawing over live-action footage to give the animation a more realistic look), and what really makes it stand out here is not just how naturally and smoothly people walk and talk, but also how colourful everything has been designed to look, like you’re watching coloured-in sketches in an illustrated book or graphic novel come to life. Everything from the actors – who, in true Linklater fashion, were filmed regularly before being upgraded to a whole other medium in post-production – to archived footage from films, television and the news is given that hand-drawn feeling, which matches neatly with Linklater’s rose-tinted view of the past. Even when Black’s never-ending narration leans far too heavily into pure nostalgia, which especially during that first major section of the film inevitably happens once or twice, the visual element is always so strong and inviting that you’re at least glad to be on this beautiful ride (also, who’d have thought we’d ever see snippets of The Sound of Music or the forgotten Roddy McDowell B-movie It! with animation plastered all over them?).
While there isn’t exactly a thorough plot – even the secret space mission stuff is more of an afterthought, opening the movie before coming back in for the final half, and even then most of it feels side-lined and shown only through flashback – Linklater’s film offers a mellow, chilled and often poetic love letter to a section of his childhood where to be interested in space was to be the most interesting person in the room. You’ll never get bored listening to Jack Black narrating over several vignettes in this boy’s life, because they’re often so full of lively anecdotes that can only come from hands-on experience, and it does such a great job at hooking you in visually that even the signs of repetitiveness don’t hinder one’s enjoyment of the overall adventure it’s taking you on.
When both the reminiscing and the fantastical strands eventually collide for the climactic landings of both Apollo 11 and the titular Apollo 10½, our young protagonist can barely keep his eyes open. By contrast, neither you nor Linklater won’t want them to ever close.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Apollo 10½: A Space Age Adventure is a charming and gorgeously animated slice-of-life picture from filmmaker Richard Linklater, who uses semi-autobiographical anecdotes and fantastical whimsy, all set to beautiful rotoscoped animation, to present an undeniably nostalgic perspective of the summer of 1969.