Apollo 10 ½ is one of the warmest and most humanistic animated films I have had
the pleasure of seeing. Although it is aimed at general family audiences, it
will resonate most strongly with baby boomers of a certain age, people born in
the late fifties and or currently in their late 50s. It tells the story of the first moon landing
from the interwoven viewpoints of both a real astronaut and a 4th grader in
Texas who in a weird way in his own mind becomes the first man on the moon, in
spite of both being unrelated. The film is a beautifully done presenting a fresh depiction of a more
innocent America, when the US still seemed to be ascending and
when many had boundless faith in science to perfect the world. Pandemics,
inflation and diminishing buying power are all unknowns.
This film was made by the Texan Richard Linklater, director of Boyhood plus
Before Sunrise (1995) and Sunset (2004) and its sequel, Before Sunset (2013).
Here he has combined his interests in history plus nostalgia previously
exhibited in Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some. With his interest in
realist animation which were successfully employed in both Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly
created some of his most memorable film moments. This film utilizes fuzzy rotoscope
which are drawings built atop live action video.
Apollo 10 1/2 is highly autobiographical and drawn mostly from Linklater’s
childhood. It shows a family based very much on his own, and going through mini dramas in the
sixties. It is a perfect excuse to show how the big events in history
intersected with ordinary people’s daily lives. People who grew up in the 60s
are sure to recognize themselves or their friends in scenes which depict kids
rushing home after school to see the coolest show in the world, Dark Shadows or
when students go under desks to practice "duck and cover" for a nuclear war; the school officials naivete is amusing. The film’s wealth of remembered detail makes it delicious
for viewers of a certain age.
The main focus is on a Houston based middle class high school student and
academic all-star Stan (Milo Coy) who is academically and intellectually above
average. The movie is narrated by the adult Stan (Jack Black) who reminisces on
the past in an often deadpan and non-committal tone. The film is often like
seeing great old home movies or going through a fascinating family photo book.
In the narrator’s fantasy, NASA decides to do a pretend preliminary fake space
flight so they made a small-scale lunar model and at that moment he becomes
a miniature astronaut precursor of Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, while the recruiter says: “Do
it for the free world.” This was a few years before the real Apollo take off and
the film implies that the government undertook Project Apollo as a kind of
diversion to keep people’s mind off the country’s war protests and generational
divisions. Stan is surprised and delighted that he has been unexpectedly chosen
for a NASA mission.
The film then jumps ahead to the week of the real moon landing. The dad gives
the kids a choice of either going to a fancy new amusement park in the mold of
Great America or Kiddieland, or staying home to watch the space flight. Of
course, the kids cannot fully appreciate the gravity (pun intended) of the
history making event and choose the amusement park (Kids will be kids), but the
dad hopes the kids can come home early enough to at least a little of the
The films also shows some negative aspects of the period and the children are
continually exposed to danger because of lax standards and behavior. The dad
would sometimes drink a beer while driving and ordered the son to take the
wheel. Corporal punishment was common, and the main character heard the
principal beat a student before he sees him, presumably to get a paddling. The
kids swim in over chlorinated pools and the popsicles were so frozen that they
stuck to the kid’s mouth. Every Sunday the family systematically made lunches
for whole week and froze them so sometimes sandwiches were half frozen.
It also includes interesting musical selections from the hippy era including
many more obscure songs that have been long ago discarded by classic rock
stations. Listen closely an you'll hear: Quicksilver Messenger Service’s "Who Do You Love?", The Music
Machine’s "Talk Talk" , The Byrds’ "So You Wanna be a Rockn Roll Star" and early Syd
Barrett era Pink Floyd which is effectively used during the moon landing.
The family’s musical tastes seem determined by age and gender and the members
partially define themselves by their music. The older girl, Vicky who thinks she
is cooler then everyone likes the Beatles, the middle girl Jana adores the
Monkee's while the younger Stephanie digs the Archie's and the boy basically likes any
album with a sexy cover-like Herb Alpert. At one point there was an
argument because the girls wanted to see Janis Joplin on Ed Sullivan and the
boys want to see something else, and Vicky declares with pride that she knew
that "Lucy in the Sky" was all about LSD, but the squares just did not get it
Although some of the year’s other animated features like Belle look more modern,
or are weirder (The Shell with Shoes On), this one touched me more perhaps
because of my shared experiences with the film maker. I cannot think of a better
film that could be seen with the whole family that would show kids how things
were when their parents, or more likely grandparents were growing up. My
deceased dad for one would have loved it.