You probably didn’t know about the problem NASA discovered a few months before the first moon landing. I certainly hadn’t, until clued in by “Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood.” That’s Richard Linklater’s enchantingly improbable yet unerringly exact animated feature. It starts streaming on Netflix April 1.
You see, there was this issue with the prototype of the Apollo 11 lunar module. It was just slightly too small. Remember how the calibration was a tiny bit off with the Hubble Space Telescope? This was something like that. Anyway, NASA couldn’t just start over again. So it had to recruit and train someone who could fit into the module and then fly it, making sure that the correctly sized one would work for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
That someone would be 9-year-old Stan, whose story “Apollo 10½” ostensibly is. I say ostensibly because Stan’s NASA exploits are folded into a remembrance of middle-class American life in 1969. That remembrance is exuberant and loving — loving but not sentimental. It’s too clear-eyed and closely observed for that.
Stan, his parents, and five older siblings live in suburb Houston. Look, the space agency was in a hurry; why would it travel far to recruit a pint-size astronaut? But the television shows they watch, the Top 40 songs they listen to, the general humdrum happiness they enjoy were by no means limited to Texas.
As in Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” (1993), about the last day of school and first night of summer vacation in a Texas town in 1976, “Apollo 10½” maintains a wondrous balance between Lone Star specific and anywhere-in-America general. There’s even an odd detail connecting the two movies. The fearsome paddle that Ben Affleck’s character wields in “Dazed” has its counterpart in the one employed by the teachers and principal of Stan’s elementary school.
This is Linklater’s third animated feature, after “Waking Life” (2001) and “A Scanner Darkly” (2006). Like those two movies, “Apollo 10½” is rotoscoped. Rotoscoping is a technique whereby action is filmed using live actors, with the footage then painted over by animators. It has a distinctive look, at once slightly clunky (no Pixar virtuosity here) yet clearly grounded in reality. It’s like the uncanny valley in reverse. That term refers to the unease produced by how lifelike computer animation can seem. Here there’s reassurance in the images making no pretense at being “real” even as they’re anything but fantastical. A further effect is to enhance the interplay Linklater is after between the unique and the universal.
That’s another kind of balance. Here’s a third, one that’s generational. What venturesome young girl or boy wouldn’t identify with Stan and thrill to the details of his astronaut training and its heroic outcome? (Let’s just say that before men landed on the moon, a certain boy got there first.) For a child, “Apollo 10½” must be heaven. It’s heaven in a different way for that child’s grandparents.
Linklater, who grew up in suburban Houston, is 61. Anyone in the vicinity of that age is going to be time-machine-transported by how “Apollo 10½” evokes 1969 now as experienced by a child or adolescent then. Exxon was still Esso. Gas pumps had attendants. Push-button telephones — miraculously, incomprehensibly — had begun to replace rotary-dial ones. The Archies were number one on the charts (Linklater and music supervisor Randall Poster have fashioned a spot-on soundtrack that ranges from Top 40 to trippy). “Dark Shadows” was must-see after-school TV. Janis Joplin was on “The Dick Cavett Show.” There was a “Dick Cavett Show.” During his mission’s countdown, Stan can be seen reading Mad magazine. What, him worry?
Maintaining that balance between then and now is narration from a grown-up Stan. It’s provided by Jack Black. Black starred in Linklater’s “School of Rock” (2003) and “Bernie” (2011). Restraint, let us say, has never been Black’s calling card. Being heard but not seen would seem to remedy this. Black proves an ideal aural companion here: matter-of-fact, amused, affectionate, reflective, self-effacing.
Clearly, Stan was a great kid. Black demonstrates that he grew up to be a great guy. That greatness would appear to be contagious, since “Apollo 10½” is pretty great, too.
APOLLO 10½: A Space Age Childhood
Written and directed by Richard Linklater. Featuring the voice of Jack Black. Streaming on Netflix. 97 minutes. PG-13 (suggestive material, injury images, smoking).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.