Richard Linklater’s new animation feature film “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood”, which was released on Netflix on last Friday, is as sweet, funny, witty, and whimsical as you can expect from his work. Starting with one silly and outrageous story promise, the movie simply rambles from one episodic moment to another, but those individual moments in the film are constantly packed with enough wit and humor tinged with some warm nostalgia, and you may find yourself gladly going along with that.
First, let’s talk a bit about its preposterous story promise. Mainly set in Houston, Texas of the late 1960s, the movie opens with how its young hero happens to be chosen for a certain secret government mission. While he is going through another school day along with his schoolmates, Stanley (voiced by Milo Coy) is approached by a couple of NASA agents, and they subsequently tell him about why he is needed for their latest lunar exploration mission. Due to some engineering error, the lunar module happened to be produced in a half size, so they need a child astronaut right now instead of those adult ones including, yes, Neil Armstrong, and Stanley somehow looks like an ideal one for that.
Once he accepts the request, Stanley soon goes through your average training montage, but then the film comes to focus on something else. Yes, it is apparent to us that what older Stanley, voiced by Jack Black, tells us is no more than a funny fictional tale of grand exaggeration, and the movie looks back at how much this tale is influenced by Stanley’s childhood background. After all, he has grown up in a big suburban family living not so far from that NASA center in Houston, and his father actually works in NASA, though what he does there is not as awesome as his youngest son wishes.
Anyway, living near that NASA center during the late 1960s was pretty fun and exciting for young kids like Stanley. As the American space programs went higher and higher toward the moon, everyone in US became more excited about space and future, and that is quite evident from a brief scene where Stanley and others watch Stanley Kubrick’s great SF film “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) at a local movie theater. Although I watched it for the first time alone at my family home at one night of 1996 autumn, I still remembere well how much I was baffled and intrigued during my viewing, and I must confess that I was quite amused by the following scene where Stanley enthusiastically talks about its sublime qualities in front of his several disinterested friends.
Stanley can be regarded as your typical young Linklater hero not so far from the boy hero of Linklater’s masterpiece “Boyhood” (2014), and the film has some fun from Stanley’s dryly humorous observation of his family and many other figures in his neighborhood. While his father is usually busy with his work outside, his mother is mostly occupied with numerous domestic stuffs besides raising their six children including Stanley, and one of the most amusing moments in the film comes from how she diligently handles the daily meals for her and her family every week.
As 1969 begins, the mood becomes more exciting in Stanley’s neighborhood thanks to the upcoming Apollo 11 mission, and the film freely goes back and forth between the reality and whatever is imagined inside Stanley’s imaginative mind. In his imagination, he continues to go through the training before the launch day comes, and, as watching those three astronauts of Apollo 11 preparing for the launch on TV, his mind keeps focusing on how he prepares just like that without being noticed by the media and many people out there including his family.
In the meantime, the film sometimes pays some attention to the considerable social/cultural changes through which the American society was going around that time. Although everything usually looks just fine and normal around Stanley and his family, they often encounter various social issues ranging from the Vietnam War to the civil rights movement whenever they watch TV news, and Stanley naturally becomes more aware of how things are not that rosy for many other people in the country.
In the end, the story culminates to that historic moment on the Moon which happened in August 1969, but Linklater’s screenplay sticks to its casual attitude while continuing to have funs as usual. Cheerfully wielding its distinctive animation style which will instantly take you to Linklater’s two other notable animation films “Waking Life” (2001) and “A Scanner Darkly” (2006), the movie somehow pulls off a solid ending from its free-flowing narrative style, and Coy, Black, and several other substantial voice cast members including Glen Powell and Zachary Levi are mostly effective as wisely keeping their voice performances straight even during the most absurd moments in the film.
In conclusion, “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” does not reach to the profoundly offbeat aspects of “Waking Life”, but it is still another enjoyable work from Linklater, who has seldom disappointed us since his debut feature film “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books” (1988). Sure, the film may be no more than a merely whimsical rambling which simply goes on and on throughout its 98-minute running time, but it is done fairly well with enough wit, style, and intelligence, and the result is fun and entertaining at least. It is not great, but I am glad that I spent some time in watching and listening to it, and I assure you that you will not regret at all if you are an admirer of Linklater’s many works just like me.