The latest film from acclaimed director Richard Linklater (whose works include Boyhood, Dazed and Confused), Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood, is like a cream-filled donut. On the outside, it’s soft and sweet with a playful sense of humor, and gorgeous animation. On the inside, it’s messy and sloppy, with a meandering narrative and a serious lack of conflict. But, just like a donut, it’s hard not to love it.
The film, animated with breathtaking rotoscopic art, follows the childhood of Stanley (Milo Coy, with Jack Black in voiceovers), a 10-year-old living in suburban Houston during the height of the Space Age. The plot switches back and forth from anecdotes from Stanley’s life, to a loose overarching plot in which Stanley trains to go to the Moon when NASA builds Apollo 11 just a bit too small. It’s worth noting that Stanley’s story is all fictional, but the attention to detail makes the film feel like non-fiction.
The plot’s structure is undoubtedly unique. After NASA convinces Stanley to join them in the films’ opening minutes, the first half of the film flashes back to a series of loosely connected tales describing the adventures of Stanley and his family. These short stories are set to the wry narration of Jack Black. He serves as the driving force for the film, and at times his timing is excellent. That being said, his performance as Adult Stanley can feel a bit disengaged on occasion.
Apollo 10 ½’s second half focuses more on Stanley’s imaginary NASA mission, woven together with scenes of Stanley’s family watching the landing of Apollo 11. This section of the film drags as it loses some of the charm, and lasts about ten minutes too long. By this point, we’ve been lulled into a sense of security by the lighthearted first half. But when the moon landing section rolls around, its pacing is so much slower than the rest of the film that it begins to feel like an unwelcome departure from the earlier energy.
The film’s uncommon structure leads to a lack of conflict or character arcs that impede the emotional connection. Throughout the film, there isn’t a single problem for the characters that can’t be solved within five seconds. The film focuses on Stanley, but doesn’t give him any depth or personality except for the “typical 60s kid.” Watching Stanley’s misadventures can be fun for a while, but at a certain point you realize it’s not going anywhere. The script meanders as well. Linklater seems to have plenty of topics to cover, but has no idea of how to connect them. The segues are lazy, and we go from one scene to the next without any resolution or payoff.
The biggest selling point of Apollo 10 ½ is its nostalgic, lighthearted tone. Linklater has said that Stanley’s story is loosely based on his own childhood, which is made exceedingly clear by the sheer attention to detail. The narrator will go on eerily detailed tangents about everything from the TV shows on at the time, to the Houston Astros, to making school lunch on Sunday nights. The film is clearly made with heart, and this passion dominates the film. Just like Stanley, you feel carefree and young. Additionally, the lack of conflict really works well to let your guard down and get immersed in the story.
Rotoscopic animation isn’t the most common, but it essentially traces over live action footage to create a realistic drawing. The films’ animation is beautiful. The choppiness can take a bit of getting used to if you’ve never seen rotoscoping before, but the characters look incredible, and the world feels colorful and vibrant. Another aspect Apollo 10 ½ nails, is the soundtrack. With a collection of catchy 60s rock hits, Linklater hits all the right notes and perfectly accompanies the action. A highlight is “Barabajagal” by Donovan, which sets the tone for the film as it plays over the opening scene.
Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is everything you could want in a comfort watch. It’s sweet, funny, and pleasant. Although the film is undoubtedly flawed, you can’t help but root for Stanley. The lifelike animation is incredible, and the soundtrack is infectiously fun. Could it have been better? Absolutely. But is it still a fun and heartwarming movie? Absolutely.