Shelf Life
Yona Yona Penguin

by Paul Jensen,

If you're not already watching Megalobox this season, you should absolutely put it on your list. It's been stylish and entertaining from the get-go, but the last couple of episodes have really stepped things up and added some emotional depth to the whole thing. Plus, you get to watch people clobber each other with fancy mecha arms, and who doesn't love that? Welcome to Shelf Life.

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Yona Yona Penguin

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Yona Yona Penguin BD
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Synopsis: When a young girl named Coco is mistaken for a legendary hero by the inhabitants of a Goblin village, she must find a way to help her strange new friends.

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Shelf Life Reviews

We're taking half a step out of the box this week with Yona Yona Penguin, which is much more of a children's film than the stuff we typically review. That being said, if you're looking for something kid-friendly from Japan, it might be right up your alley.

The origins of Yona Yona Penguin are somewhat unusual: it's an international co-production, put together by Madhouse Studios and a Paris-based studio called Denis Friedman Productions. Unique background aside, this children's film will feel familiar to most viewers. It's a relatively simple story about a child getting whisked away to a supernatural world and coming to aid of that world's inhabitants. Older viewers probably won't find anything new or noteworthy here, but the younger audience at whom it's aimed will find a competent plot and some charming characters.

The film follows Coco, a young girl who wanders around her hometown at night dressed in a coat that makes her look like a penguin. The coat was a gift from her late father, and she wears it constantly. This leads to trouble when a Goblin named Chaley mistakes Coco for a legendary flightless bird, which is foretold to save the Goblin village in times of crisis. Chaley brings Coco to his villiage, where the locals ask her to protect them from Bucca Boo, an ancient dark spirit who has recently regained his powers. As a regular girl, this is obviously way outside Coco's area of expertise, but she decides to try her best anyway. As it often does in children's films, a grand adventure ensues.

As a child protagonist, Coco is pretty well-balanced. She's competent enough to deal with the challenges that are placed in front of her, but not so strong as to defy belief. She clearly misses her dad, but remains cheerful and confident nonetheless. I normally mark down “viewer insert” characters in anime as being bland and uninteresting, but in the context a children's film Coco's relatability as an ordinary kid works in her favor, and she has enough personality to carry a scene when necessary. Chaley the Goblin is more forgettable as the designated “new friend” character, but he works fine as Coco's guide to the supernatural world. The final major player here is Zammie, the number one henchman in the evil army. He spends the early part of the story as a bumbling comic relief character, only to take on a more nuanced role near the end. It's all pretty simple stuff, but this core cast should be fun and engaging enough to hold the attention of young viewers.

The story in Yona Yona Penguin is pretty typical fare. Adult viewers will be able to see plot twists coming from a mile away, thanks to the script's close adherence to a pretty standard genre formula. Coco gets politely dragged into the supernatural plotline, makes some friends, and eventually overcomes the baddies with plenty of help from the people and spirits around her. As predictable as it is, it's at least told with a plausible amount of enthusiasm. Rather than a cynical recycling of a familiar tropes, this feels more like a movie that keeps things simple in order to be accessible to its intended audience. Viewed in that light, I'd call it reasonably successful effort, though not necessarily one that stands out from the crowd.

Naturally, there are some simple themes and life lessons to go along with that simple plot. It's all fairly common material: making friends, believing in yourself, and standing up to bullies. The film also touches on loss and grief through Coco's late father, but it's a very light, surface-level treatment of the subject. By and large, this is more of a lighthearted adventure, so it's sufficient that the messages are appropriate and easy to understand. If anything, the issue with Yona Yona Penguin is that its plot points are more connected to those themes than they are to one another; it often feels like things just happen because the movie needs them to happen, rather than coming about as direct results of the characters' choices. In particular, there are a couple of last-minute interventions from divine spirits that discount the value of Coco's own actions.

Honestly, though, the biggest issue with Yona Yona Penguin may be its production values. This is a CG film that originally came out in 2009, and it's pretty obvious that it was made without the vast resources available to big-budget Western productions of that same vintage. There's a respectable amount of creativity in the movie's visual design, and Coco's penguin coat is particularly cute. Unfortunately, neither the animation nor the level of detail hold up well. Characters' movements are not especially smooth, facial expressions tend to be simple or overly exaggerated, and the backgrounds often feel like they're missing a final layer of polish. Extras in this physical release are minimal, though it's worth noting that there is an English dub. Unless you have a rare set of kids who can keep up with subtitles, that's probably going to be audio track of choice.

Aging visuals aside, Yona Yona Penguin is a competent and charming children's film. It lacks the depth and complexity to appeal to an older audience, and I don't see it replacing the average kid's favorite movie, but as an afternoon's entertainment it'll work just fine. Think of this Rental rating as applying to the film's primary audience, rather than the usual anime crowd.

That wraps things up for this week. Thanks as always for reading, and remember to send your Shelf Obsessed entries to [email protected]! (And if you sent in an entry in the last couple of days, don't worry, it'll be included with next week's column.)

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