Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood is a sweet and nostalgic animated coming-of-age sci-fi adventure drama from Richard Linkater, the director who brought us Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Everybody Wants Some!! and Boyhood. While best known for his live-action films, Apollo 10½: slips into his critically acclaimed selection of animated features along with Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly using a similar rotoscoping and live-action based animated style. Known for creating atmospheric, moody and nostalgic stories that soak up the life and times of eras or generations, he’s applied this to his latest project, which was originally set to be a live-action film.
Apollo 10½: juxtaposes a man’s childhood memories of growing up in Houston, Texas around the time of the first moon landing against a fantastical space voyage of his own. Narrated by Jack Black, who thanks to Bernie, has some experience with a southern accent – the film harks back to simpler times, using blast-from-the-past music of the age to connect dots and an amusing retrospective commentary to poke fun based on what we know now. From playing in the garden to drive-ins, Apollo 10½: will conjure up many fond memories for people who grew up on both sides of the moon landing. Featuring a broad and relatively unknown voice cast, you may recognise Glen Powell and Zachary Levi as NASA personnel with young Milo Coy chiming in as Stan.
Filming Boyhood over the course of a decade, a gimmick that helped him craft an unusually immersive suburban tale, Linklater continues to challenge himself, returning to the realm of animation. Linklater remains in the haziness of youth, crafting a film that recalls the wide-eyed naivete and nostalgia of The Wonder Years starring Fred Savage. This warmth and familiarity to Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood extends into parallels with First Man, Young Sheldon and his very own Boyhood. Linklater captures some of the the NASA space race determination and mission-orientated focus of the Ryan Gosling-led First Man, the colourful and comical Texas suburban living of Young Sheldon and integrates it into what must surely be a slice of biographical sentimentality akin to Boyhood. While there may be a number of similarities, Linklater owns his vision and injects a degree of fantasy to the homespun storytelling by allowing a 10-year-old boy’s daydream to take root.
“What happens in Houston…”
The celebrated yet underrated director uses the medium to help stretch the bounds of his typical storytelling, which usually centres on characters and scenarios that are well within reach. Apollo 10½: is the kind of production that could have been a live-action film, keeping one foot on the ground in spite of making a lunar landing. Using a great deal of CGI to recreate launches or theme parks, as well as build intricate period sets the cost of a full immersion may have been too exorbitant, enough to warrant the switch to animation. It could have even been derived from a film concept that was subverted due to lockdown restrictions, making it more doable as an animated feature with a modest budget. However, as resourceful as Richard Linklater is… the auteur has had this personal film loaded since 2004 with a wish to conquer another animated feature using some of his trademark elements.
Apollo 10½: has a sweetness, naivete and warmth as a throwback to the age of the first moon landing. Brilliant animated storytelling works well enough that you sometimes forget you’re watching a stream of regimented colours and lines. If it can happen from time to time with Matt Groening’s comic universe in The Simpsons, you can be sure it’ll take place in Apollo 10½:. Not only is Linklater a master storyteller, able to swathe his audiences and characters in another time and place, but he’s leaning on realistic animation. The lifelike movements of the characters suggest he used live-action, as with his previous animated productions, to supplant his actors in a two-dimensional world where it’s much easier to recreate spaceflights, moon landings, pop culture brands and even theme parks.
Owing to the medium’s playfulness and inspired by Saturday morning cartoons, it works remarkably well in this entertaining flow of memoirs from a grown up Stan. The style of storytelling may push off fairly sparse dialogue with the narrator doing a great deal of driving work, which creates some distance, yet it’s the emotional pull of nostalgia from the age of space exploration that keep it upbeat and fun, referencing many brands, shows and peculiarities from the time. Bolstered by lively animation, good memories, sharp voice talents and gentle daydreaming about the Space Age, this delightful throwback animated sci-fi adventure drama remains compelling and entertaining.
The bottom line: Nostalgic