Review: Memory meets fantasy in charming ‘Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood’

Animated still of kids firing a model rocket in the movie “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood.”
A scene from the animated film “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood.”
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Richard Linklater makes his best movie since “Boyhood” with “Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood,” a charming animated dramedy that combines the rotoscoped look of the director’s “Waking Life” with the “remember when” reveries of his “Dazed and Confused.” Though it has a few fantastical elements, the picture is mostly filled with Linklater’s vivid memories of growing up near Houston during the days of NASA’s Apollo missions.

Jack Black narrates the film as the adult version of the protagonist: Stan, the youngest of six children in a family whose patriarch works at NASA. The story opens with Stan, circa 1969, being asked by secret government agents to become the first boy in space, rocketed to the moon in a capsule the Apollo engineers accidentally made too small.

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The movie then immediately rewinds, so the grown-up Stan can describe what life was like for middle-class children in late 1960s suburban Texas, at a time when parents let their offspring run wild in yards, streets, parking lots, movie theaters and bowling alleys, free to develop their own rituals and tastes. Linklater connects all these anecdotes with clips from old movies and TV shows and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of ’60s pop.


“Apollo 10½” eventually circles back to Stan’s covert space mission, though that’s never really what the movie is about. Instead, Linklater is working in the tradition of films like Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” and Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord,” assembling seemingly insignificant fragments of the past into a glittering mosaic, depicting a time now seemingly just beyond reach.

Black (whose own mother was a noted aerospace engineer) gives a warm and engaging performance, sharing Linklater’s story. His Stan waxes nostalgic about riding in station wagons and pickup truck flatbeds — with no seatbelts, of course — and he recalls the melancholy feeling of watching a Disney telecast on a Sunday night, knowing that school awaited the next morning.

The animation allows Linklater and his team to re-create some elements of the late 1960s — such as vintage pinball machines, long-vanished amusement parks, and children risking their bones every time they stepped onto a playground — that would’ve been expensive or dangerous to stage in live-action. For the most part, though, the animated characters look like only slightly abstracted versions of reality … even when Stan becomes the littlest astronaut.

That central premise of “Apollo 10½” does get abandoned, early and often. But the larger point of this movie is that our own pasts sometimes seem like a fantasy — a dream we half-remember — where what actually happened and what we merely imagined both now seem equally impossible.

'Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood'

Rated: PG-13, for some suggestive material, injury images, and smoking

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: Starts March 25, Alamo Drafthouse, downtown Los Angeles; available April 1 on Netflix