Youth being wiser than their age might be a well-worn trope of cinema, but it’s effective for one simple reason: we all wish we had our current knowledge when we were young. The ability to make deductive choices, carefully weigh the outcome of options, and simply know how to properly defuse a situation would’ve been a huge boon when growing up. Seeing a character with those traits makes us identify with them because they speak to a universal truth within every human. We all wish we were better in our pasts.
Penguin Highway might initially appear like a cutesy adventure about arctic birds, but it’s really the tale of an exceptionally brilliant child discovering more about the world around him. He gets caught up in an adventure way bigger than anyone could have anticipated but is able to solve a crazy mystery that no other kid could have done. It’s a feel-good movie wrapped in a surprising sci-fi twist that will constantly reward you for paying attention to each frame.
Maybe it’s not the most original thing around, but one cannot help but leave with a smile on their face by the end.
Director: Hiroyasu Ishida
Release Date: August 17, 2018 (Japan), April 12, 2019 (Limited US)
In a quant, unnamed Japanese town, penguins randomly appear in a field off the main road. Aoyama-Kun, a boy of extreme intelligence with a very scientific approach to everything, is stunned. Why are these cute creatures here? Did they escape from a zoo? Did someone steal them and then dump them by the roadside? He begins to note different variables in his notebook and the film takes off.
The intro to Penguin Highway is very much dedicated to getting us involved with Aoyama-Kun’s world and how he views things. This is a boy that wakes up in the morning, checks his scheduled tasks, eats breakfast, counts the days he has left until reaching adulthood, and then heads out for school. He is always looking for an opportunity to spectate and learn about the world around him, leading to his keen awareness and inquisitive nature.
The film takes its time introducing every aspect of this Japanese town. Aoyama goes over his friends, rivals, and even the crush he has on a dental hygienist from his town. Something about her sparks his scientific mind, though he can’t quite put his finger on it. The introduction paints a very specific picture of the mind of a child and it creates a wholesome atmosphere that isn’t unlike other coming-of-age stories.
The film never loses that atmosphere, either. This is very much a story in the vein of something like The Goonies, just with anime and penguins. The characters all fit into specific roles, go on a crazy journey that the adults don’t know about, and even cause some mischief along the way. It’s like a slice of life picture as envisioned by Miyazaki.
You’ll get moments dedicated to Aoyama and Uchida traveling through the forests and piecing together clues about these mysterious penguins only to have the scene shift to the duo running away from someone after they prank them. It reminds me of the kind of hi-jinx I was involved in as a child, just with much better cinematography and animation.
Props need to be given to Studio Colorido, the production company behind Penguin Highway. The animation is very smooth and utilizes a bright, welcoming color palette. I wouldn’t say it’s a masterwork, but the inviting style makes it easy to get sucked into Aoyama-Kun’s journey and helps to wrap your mind around the more out-there elements in the film. The sci-fi elements blend naturally with the chosen art direction and that helps maintain a level of consistency with the film.
Director Hiroyasu Ishida also marvelously ties seemingly innocuous scenes into the main plot. There’s a moment where Aoyama-Kun’s father drops some cryptic words about the scientific method, but then you see the boy organically work them out and reach a conclusion. Small details in the background of certain segments also get explained and even some off-hand dialogue does a wonderful job of foreshadowing the twist in the story.
I’m also really fond of any story that centers on a larger than life topic but doesn’t forget the more mundane aspects of daily living. Someone partaking on an adventure like Indiana Jones, for instance, wouldn’t constantly be coming up with revelations and ignoring their basic duties. Aoyama-Kun is still a kid, so even though he has this wild experiment going on, school is still waiting.
The characters are also just plain fun. They might be archetypal, but I found it hard to dislike them. The very obvious way Suzuki tries to show his affection for Hamamoto; how Uchida is a scaredy-cat yet remains faithful to Aoyama; how the one adult that knows everything doesn’t baby the children. It’s nice to watch a film where people aren’t being vague because the screenwriter decided some action needed to happen.
The main drawback is just how long the film is. Penguin Highway is actually based on a novel by author Tomihiko Morimi and I feel like too big of an effort was made to remain faithful to that work. For instance, some scenes drag on a bit because they were likely a part of the novel. There’s a moment where Aoyama is explaining how death works to his sister, which is touching but doesn’t have anything to do with the main plot.
The film also takes an odd look at budding hormones with Aoyama. His crush on an older woman often has him staring at her boobs and even commenting that this woman’s boobs make him feel different than his mother’s. I suppose that is a wholesome way of putting it, but the camera then leers at this woman and often has her leaning forward when talking. It’s not egregious, but it does make a few moments uncomfortable.
Overall, though, I had a good time watching Penguin Highway. The way in which Aoyama-Kun develops over the film and the general flow of its plotline is likely to keep viewers engaged until the final moments. Being framed from the mind of a child helps make sense of the fantastical plot, which in turn lets us, as viewers, see some amazing things come to life.
While I can’t speak to the accuracy of its adaptation from the page, I can tell you that Penguin Highway is well worth your time.