Richard Linklater is the kind of director that makes whatever kind of film he wants to make and he's a director I have to respect for that. Not every single one of his films has been consistently good, but he has done a lot of notable films throughout his lengthy career like "Dazed and Confused", "Before Sunrise", and "Boyhood" which all have some form of uniqueness to them. He's also a director that has frequently dabbled in animation having directed the rotoscoped films "Waking Life" in 2001 and "A Scanner Darkly" in 2006. Now almost sixteen years after his last animated film, Linklater returns to make another animated film this time for Netflix called "Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood" and it's a film that I found pretty good. This is by no means a perfect film as it has some major problems that hold it back from its full potential, but it does have a lot of interesting stuff in it that made it a worthwhile watch in my opinion.
In Houston shortly before the Apollo 11 mission, a young fourth-grade boy named Stanley (Milo Coy, with adult narration provided by Jack Black) is approached by two NASA engineers named Bostick (Glen Powell) and Kranz (Zachary Levi) to work on a top-secret Apollo mission before the launch of Apollo 11. Apparently, NASA had built a lunar module that was too small for adults but perfect for a kid and they want him to go to the moon in secret. Before that though, we also get to see what his life was like in the Houston area growing up living with his many older brothers and sisters and parents recounting the amounts of pop culture that happened between 1965 to 1969 when Apollo 11 took place in that very July.
While watching this film, I could tell this was a very personal story for Richard Linklater to tell since he loosely based it on his life and I'm always intrigued by films like those. It's a great way to get inside a filmmaker's head and see what their life is like or what they experienced throughout certain events with films like Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" and Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" coming to mind. I don't think this film is anywhere near as good as those films since they were all had everything perfectly nailed, but this film does make a noted impression that I enjoyed watching. The way the story is framed is basically an adult narrator recounting his many memories as a kid growing up which is a film trope we have seen time and time again and it's never a bad one at all. I usually enjoy films like those with "A Christmas Story" being a notable one as we get to experience what the various pop culture and news were like at the time. There's a lot of detail that Linklater puts in recounting the stuff that Stanley experiences as a kid with one of my favorite examples being him watching Stanley Kubrick's science fiction magnum opus "2001: A Space Odyssey" in a theater and then later after seeing it trying to recount to an uninterested kid about what the ending of the film with the monolith and the stargate could possibly mean before he ends up scaring him away. Stuff like that made me laugh as it showed that Linklater really had great attention to detail when recounting the past. There's a lot of 60s history being presented in this film and as a history buff, it was entertaining to see which is what made up for the story's shortcomings. For one thing, the film really does overly on Jack Black's narration and it can get tiresome real quickly as he constantly explains everything in vivid detail so we can place ourselves back in the late 60s. Personally, I'd rather take the time to experience events our main character witnesses without the constant narration. I don't mind if Linklater used his narration a lot, but I do think he should've toned it down a bit.
I also thought that the stuff with the moon mission wasn't as clearly focused as it should've been as it feels more like a subplot than the actual plot of the film which was rather strange and this leads me into talking about the biggest problem the story has. The story has the narration showcase scenes through montages rather than set pieces and it can come feeling rather rushed. Even then, the film is very short clocking in at almost an hour and forty minutes when I think it should've been a bit longer. It would've allowed us to get more inside the main character's head. Speaking of the characters, I guess I should talk about them for a bit since they are sadly the biggest problem with the film. The characters themselves have no development and I had a hard time really connecting with them as I watched the film. I do see personalities in some of them like the dad being this gigantic cheapskate and constantly doing sketchy things like buying used tires for his care than new ones. It's clear Linklater has a good cast of characters in this film, but I think he should've focused on who they are as people and how they react to the historical events rather than them just being there while the historical elements in Houston and the United States take up center stage. However, what makes up for the lackluster characters and somewhat weak story is easily the animation which is very well realized and stylish. Rotoscoping is an animation technique I'm often mixed about since it can off looking uncanny and off-putting, but Linklater puts it to really interesting use here. He makes the film look a lot like a comic book or even a Mad Magazine which helps really make it eye-popping. It especially stands out when Linklater turns historical film footage into rotoscoped animation like the Vietnam War or even TV shows like "Dark Shadows". It made them look a lot like pop art which I found very cool.
In all, "Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood" is a pretty good if very flawed animated film from Richard Linklater. While it does have a very thin story and undeveloped characters, it's made up for its nostalgic presentation of late 60s history and stylish rotoscoped animation. It's a film I do think is worth checking out on Netflix if you're curious. This isn't gonna go down as one of Richard Linklater's very best films, but it's an animated film that I think does reach some great heights.