Reviewby Kim Morrissy,
Fourth grader Aoyama is a precocious young boy, who writes in his notebook every day and counts down the days until he becomes an adult. One day, a group of penguins mysteriously appear in his quiet suburban neighborhood. Aoyama's crush, an unnamed older woman who works as a dental assistant, asks him to discover the reason why the penguins have appeared. Along the way, Aoyama becomes embroiled in other mysteries affecting their town.
I was excited for Penguin Highway from the moment I first saw the trailer. The bright colors were immediately charming, and the penguins were all so adorable! Right then and there, I dubbed it my most anticipated anime film of the year.
For the most part, Penguin Highway delivers exactly what its trailer promised: a cute and funny story about penguins materializing in a suburban neighborhood. There's also much more to the story beyond its adorable trailer, of course. Behind all the adorable penguin antics, Penguin Highway is about childhood and the inevitability of growing up. But the main takeaway for many viewers was always going to be the penguins. It's the film's greatest strength but also its greatest limiter.
The promos didn't make clear that the penguins only appear in a fraction of the film. The movie leans strongly on its fantastical premise in the beginning; there's an extended opening sequence showing a penguin wandering around town and getting into shenanigans, lovingly animated by master ex-Ghibli animator Hiroshi Shimizu. Yet around halfway through the film, penguins vanish from the picture altogether. They still exist within the world of the story, but they don't appear in any background shots until near the end.
As the film goes on, it gradually becomes evident that the plot isn't about penguins at all; they could have been replaced with any creature that doesn't normally appear in suburbia and the story would have been unchanged. The plot is really about our precocious protagonist Aoyama and the way he sees the world. There's no urgency in his quest to find out where the penguins came from. He approaches everything in life with a curious eye and a penchant for note-taking. For him, the mystery of the penguins is just as compelling as any other wonder of his world.
Penguin Highway is based on an award-winning novel of the same name by Tomihiko Morimi. It's a faithful adaptation for the most part, although it might surprise viewers of the film that the book won the Japan Science Fiction Grand Prize. To be honest, I don't really get it either. The story in both iterations strikes me as more fantasy than sci-fi. I suppose it's considered science fiction because the characters talk a lot about the scientific method, and their understanding of science informs how they approach the mysteries of the universe. Like many classic works of science fiction, Penguin Highway asks its audience to think about what we can and can't understand with science.
I can see why Penguin Highway would disappoint those who didn't expect such a philosophical turn. The film cruises along for over an hour before any stakes or significant conflicts emerge. Even then, there's a sense that the plot is just going through the motions when it puts its characters in physical danger. The narrative is more preoccupied with the emotional lives of its characters, and especially what will happen to their relationships after the mystery has been solved.
Fortunately for me, that's just the way I like a story to be told. Even if there's no urgency behind solving the central mystery, it's still compelling to watch how the children tackle it. It certainly helps that this film has some delightfully written child characters, all of whom feel true to life. An early exchange between the loquacious Aoyama and his bullying classmate in the dentist's waiting room is a perfect encapsulation of both characters' childishness. Besides the penguins and the philosophical themes, the main appeal of this film is how it successfully transports an adult viewer into a child's world.
The film wouldn't have been nearly as successful without its appealing visuals. Director Hiroyasu Ishida developed a name for himself in 2009 with his short film Fumiko's Confession, which went viral on YouTube because of its frenetic animation. His style feels like a natural fit for all the fantastical scenes in Penguin Highway. There's a scene in the trailer where the 3D camera follows hundreds of penguins as they carry the protagonists across town, which plays out similarly to the climax of Hinata no Aoshigure. Even if fans of the director probably saw that kind of scene coming, it's still one of the film's high points. But the visual highlights don't end there; Ishida's vision of the world is full of unusual geometric shapes and strange sights beyond description.
Even outside of the ambitious set pieces, however, the film excels at portraying a childlike sense of wonder at the world. The bright color palette and playful animation reflect Aoyama's exuberance. Even seemingly mundane scenes of daily life like a mishap at the pool are animated with a lot of energy, making them memorable in their own right. And every scene involving the penguins is a delight because the animators clearly focus on exactly what makes the creatures so cute—the awkward way they walk.
I wasn't let down by Penguin Highway in the slightest, but it probably helped that I'd already read the novel beforehand and knew what to expect. Although the film condenses the story considerably, it still clocks in at two hours, and the penguins have less of a presence than you'd expect, even though every scene they're in has tremendous impact. As soon as I saw the climactic scenes in context, I understood why this story was made into an anime. Seeing a whole town come to life with penguins is absolutely magical, and it made me fall in love all over again with the freedom of animation. I hope this film puts Studio Colorido on the radar for anime fans—it's a fantastic effort for the studio's first feature-length film.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : B+
+ The penguins are adorable, great animation and color design, captures the viewpoint of a precocious child
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