Of all the projects Netflix has given great directors the money to film — many of them Oscar-nominated, some of them even bringing master filmmakers like Jane Campion back to the mainstream — tossing money to Richard Linklater got them the most adorable results.
Linklater, an indie icon since “Slacker,” a writer-director lionized for “Boyhood,” took Netflix money and made a rotoscoped animated film, this one a classic of American late ’60s nostalgia.
“Apollo 10 1/2” is ostensibly a space race comedy about a kid plucked from a Houston elementary school after NASA’s first moon lander is accidentally underbuilt and only has room for a child. But it turns out to be Linklater’s thoroughly-detailed survey of a childhood spent growing up at the tail end of the “space race,” when the future seemed without boundaries, America embraced the new and all that mattered was “beating the damned Russians” to the moon.
So while a couple of “Men in Black” (Zachary Levi and Glen Powell) drop by Ed White Elementary (named for an astronaut) and recruit young Stan (Milo Coy) for their “super secret” mission, telling him “Stan, you’re our only hope,” the adult Stan’s memories of that are almost crowded out by everything else that was grabbing his attention in that summer of ’69.
Jack Black reunites with his “School of Rock” director to voice-over narrate that sentimental journey, describing everything from what was on TV back then and what “Astroworld,” the amusement park next to the world’s first domed stadium, the Houston Astrodome, was like, to the now-banned corporal punishment that faced school kids, neighborhood misbehavior and even Little League players who dared to make an error.
If you grew up in that era — Linklater and I are contemporaries — you will be bowled-over by the depth of details, the toy rocket mania and every other dangerous thing under-supervised kids and their didn’t-know-any-better parents did or allowed rather than let kids stay indoors and watch TV or play video games.
If you’re too young to remember any of this, you might be gobsmacked at all the strife, struggle, shock of the new and dizzying hope for the future that went on while “Sugar Sugar” was playing on the radio.
Unrestrained freeway rides in the bed of a pickup truck, “roman candle” fights and inattentive child care all seemed to come home to roost on the evening news, where Vietnam casualty counts began as grim and found their way into “routine” — normalized for a distracted, mass-consuming public.
“We were expendable,” adult Stan (Black) drolly notes. Indeed they/we were. After previous summers’ riots and assassinations, “the last ‘duck-and-cover'” generation would expect no less.
“Twilight Zone” to Jell-O molds, “2001: A Space Odyssey” to single-breadwinner families able to enjoy the good life on a single salary, it’s all a bit shocking if all-too-warmly remembered.
Rotoscoping, which involves filming actors and then coloring their performances to turn the footage into animation, tends to render its subject matter timeless, as Linklater did with “Waking Life” and Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman did with their animated/painted last days of Van Gogh classic, “Loving Vincent.”
With almost the entire film consisting of voice-over narrated memories, montages of events and vignettes as backdrop, “Apollo 10 1/2” might have been utterly forgettable without the rotoscoped adding of computer-painted rose-colored glasses.
But in this form, it becomes something timeless, not autobiography (Linklater’s parents divorced when he was 7), but a sweet and somewhat innocent memory play animated in brighter-than-real-life color, a summary of how things were in an America that accomplished great things even as its institutions strained at revolutionary/evolutionary change that continues to this day.
Rating: Injury Images|Some Suggestive Material|Smoking)
Cast: Narrated by Jack Black, with Zachary Levi, Lee Eddy, Milo Coy, Bill Wise, Josh Wiggins
Credits: Scripted and directed by Richard Linklater. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:30