"Fly Me to the Moon" is a computer-animated kiddie flick about three housefly best friends who buzz their way onto the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. That sounds as genuinely painful as an August dog-days release can be, and it would be, except for two things. One, if you're 6 years old, you probably never realized how insanely cool the 1969 moon landing was in all its rocket-geek details. Two, what the filmmakers do with 3-D here is within shouting distance of art.
The director, Ben Stassen, has been making 3-D and
You notice it right off: At the screening I attended, the first shot of a swampy pond extending off into the distant mist (cattails in the foreground) drew gasps of astonishment from not only the children but their parents. Nothing had happened yet, but the setting seemed charged, hyperreal.
Throughout the film, the Belgium-based 3-D house nWave works against our expectations: Instead of a limited number of animated planes of depth, "Fly Me to the Moon" evokes infinite gradations. Instead of launching objects out at us, the film sends characters flying in over our heads from the back of the theater, eliciting dismayed cries and swatting motions. For the first time in my experience, a 3-D movie felt bigger than my ability to take it all in.
The story line, unfortunately, is miniscule. "A Bug's Life" gone retro-rocket, "Moon" is set at Cape Canaveral in 1969 and follows three young boy flies - heroic Nat (voiced by Trevor Gagnon), brainiac IQ (Philip Bolden), and fat, lazy slob Scooter (David Gore) - as they scheme to sneak aboard the Apollo 11 launch. Trying to hold them back is Nat's mom (Kelly Ripa); cheering them on is his retired-aviator Grandpa (Christopher Lloyd) and adorable little maggot siblings.
(That's right: maggots. They're pink and wriggly and have big grins and "cute" eyes, none of which keeps them from being thoroughly revolting. Between these guys, last year's "Ratatouille," and the cockroach sidekick in "WALL-E," vermin are the current must-have family movie accessory. Leeches, call your agents. Wait, that's redundant.)
The character design is fairly creepy - Grandpa looks like a mummified skeleton - and the dialogue as inane as you'd expect from second-tier kiddie product. The humans are awkward and Lego-like; the villainous Communist Russian flies just dumb. The hardware, though - the hardware is perfect. From the Saturn V rocket that lifts the mission into space to the Eagle Lunar Module landing in the Sea of Tranquility, "Fly Me to the Moon" introduces a new generation to mankind's most expansive adventure (complete with an enjoyably corny live-action cameo from astronaut Buzz Aldrin at the end).
And because the story is constantly shifting from bug-level micro to the vast macro of the solar system (with human-size NASA drama in between), the movie's 3-D visuals actually have a narrative function instead of serving as vaudeville jiggery-pokery. Watching "Fly Me to the Moon," you're forced to constantly renegotiate perspective and scale, and not only is this a distinct pleasure in the manner of an M.C. Escher drawing or Istvan Banyai's "Zoom" picture books for children, but it dovetails with the movie's greater scheme.
The Apollo 11 mission forced us all to think of ourselves as both a little bit bigger and quite a bit smaller than we were used to. "Fly Me to the Moon" is a crummy movie for kids, yet it still holds out the prospect of past wonders and future marvels. It's one small step for a housefly, one giant leap for 3-D.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.