The number in Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood refers to the age of a young boy named Stan (voiced by Milo Coy), a child of the 1960s. One of six siblings living in Houston with his mother and father, Stan is obsessed with the space race, as most kids are. Only one day on the playground, Stan is covertly recruited into the Apollo space program. Due to a miscalculation on the engineering side, NASA built the Apollo capsule too small. They need someone of child-sized proportions to embark on a voyage to the Moon. Because of the nature of the operation, he must tell no one.
That’s enough meat for a feature film, but Apollo 10½ is indeed another work from the brilliant, beautiful mind of writer/director Richard Linklater. Alas, all those details are outlined in the first ten minutes and are then relegated to the backburner. In true Linklater fashion, he sidesteps what most screenwriters would consider the primary plot of the movie in favor of a nostalgia reel of the 1960s. Nope, I didn’t mind one bit.
Following Stan’s recruitment, the next 45 minutes are a peek into his childhood drawn literally and figuratively with immaculate detail: Jiffy Pop, Jell-O bowls, dad stealing plywood from a nearby construction site for a ping-pong table, rigging arcade machines, a neighborhood toddler sleeping in the middle of the street, fighting over the TV, Dark Shadows, and that eerie Zager & Evans hit song “In the Year 2525.” Those are all just some of the icing on a gorgeous cake that is Linklater’s triumphant return to animation — his first work in the medium since A Scanner Darkly in 2006.
Linklater again employs Rotoscoping technology, which is the act of drawing over live action frames to create hyper-realistic cartoon frames. This results in distinctive character and scenery models along with the occasional mental lapses that, on occasion, are so pristinely rendered you have to remind yourself you’re indeed watching an animated movie.
It’s abundantly clear that Stan’s induction into NASA is a fantasy, perhaps one held by Linklater (who was nine when the Moon landing occurred). Even so, it’s illustrated with all the wonderment of a wide-eyed child having an elaborate daydream right in the middle of math class.
Apollo 10½ never entertains a conflict or any sort of heightened drama. The bulk of the film is adult Stan (voiced by a charmingly subdued Jack Black) recalling life in Houston during the tumultuous 1960s. They were only tumultuous to him and his siblings based on what Walter Cronkite managed to cover on their television sets at night. For kids in the suburbs, the Vietnam War and widespread riots were confined to a small screen. Looking back, Stan more fondly recalls the disregard for safety. How he and his brothers and sisters rode to the beach in the back of their family pickup truck. How oil and tar blackened their feet; the stains no match for the gasoline-soaked rags to used to scrub off the residue.
A hilarious blink-and-you-miss-it moment has Stan and his brothers biking closely behind one of those trucks that sprayed chemicals to kill mosquitos. It’s funny in the same way the thought that smoking and non-smoking sections used to be a thing in restaurants. Or in the same way Stan’s father (Bill Wise) lectures his boys about the differences between being redneck and white trash while drinking and driving.
Most of Stan’s siblings get their moments of humanizations, although none more impacting than the eldest (?) sister, Vicky (Natalie L’Amoreaux). She’s the type to inform the youngsters of the hidden meanings in songs (she decodes “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” before their eyes). One night, Vicky sneaks into the living room with her two sisters and turns the TV to Dick Cavett interviewing Janis Joplin, interrupting her brothers watching Destination Moon. They’ve hogged the television set all day. Not even Stan’s sneak attack is going to stop her from watching one of her idols.
Like Linklater’s warmest movies — Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!!, his debut Slacker — Apollo 10½ is a scrapbook of delicate yet fungible memories of growing up and living life in the moment. He turns the grandiose plot of a boy’s odyssey to the Moon into a subplot, instead giving the era itself, its specificities, and ensuing warmth centerstage.
Just when you fear that Black’s narration overtakes any room for the characters themselves to breathe and converse, the final 30 minutes is mostly dialog-driven between the family as they anxiously await Apollo 11’s liftoff and the subsequent Moon landing. At roughly 90 minutes, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood is the optimal length for a personal, nostalgic essay from one of America’s most tender filmmakers making, again, one of the most dazzling surprises of the year thus far.
NOTE: Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood is now streaming on Netflix.
Voiced by: Jack Black, Milo Coy, Bill Wise, Lee Eddy, Natalie L’Amoreaux, Zachary Levi, Glen Powell, Josh Wiggins, Jessica Brynn Cohen, Sam Chipman, and Danielle Guilbot. Directed by: Richard Linklater.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!