What you need to know
Cute penguins and the scientific method underlie a surprisingly complex story.
Honestly, I came for the simply adorable penguins, which are indeed lovingly animated. But it turns out that “Penguin Highway” (Pengin Haiwei / ペンギン・ハイウェイ) has a lot more on its mind.
Based on the award-winning 2010 novel by Tomihiko Morimi, the film follows young boy Aoyama (Kana Kita) as penguins suddenly appear in his small Japanese town. Aoyama is a budding scientist who is eager to apply the scientific method to all sorts of conundrums in his daily life, and his father (Hidetoshi Nishijima) guides him and encourages his efforts with gifts of chocolate. Aoyama’s brainy personality, almost to the point of resembling a young Sherlock, is counterbalanced by his best friend, the klutzy and hapless Uchida (Rie Kugimiya), who serves as the frequent butt of slapstick jokes. Their penguin research project is later merged with some mysterious research conducted by classmate Hamamoto (Megumi Han), a girl with Aoyama’s brains, and actual social skills to boot. And then there’s the unnamed 20-something dental assistant (called the Lady, voiced by Yū Aoi) who chaperones Aoyama after school, teaches him chess, and with whom he is madly in love; she’s a mystery, too.
The part of this premise that’s perhaps hardest to digest is Aoyama’s unreal braininess – he even uses words to try to defend himself against class bully Suzuki (Miki Fukui) – so it’s smart of writer Makoto Ueda to use this as the jumping off point, allowing us to accept it immediately. But something he probably should have changed is Aoyama’s obsession with female breasts, the Lady’s in particular. After the year of #MeToo, this running gag just seems creepy, especially when first-time director Hiroyasu Ishida gives us more than one voyeuristic POV shot. Not something we should be teaching our kids, I think.
The penguins, as noted above, are exceedingly cute, animated in a way that emphasizes their waddling and other cute animal movements (art direction by Takamasa Mishiki). At one point, Uchida pets one on the head, and my heart nearly exploded. The people are animated naturalistically, which enhances the humor of the slapstick sequences. It’s when you look at the surroundings that you get a feel for the film’s underlying aesthetic. The streets and buildings are formal and geometric, the bushes and trees are dense and layered, and moments of wonder are enhanced by 3D rendering and camera movements (cinematography by Tetsu Machida). The climax joins together all of these things for a marvelous, psychedelic experience.
Though barely hinted at in the trailer, there’s a science fictional mystery at the heart of the film, and the middle section often feels like the middle section of the hit 2016 film “Your Name” (Kimi no Nawa / 君の名は), with its attendant, slightly creepy sense of the vast unknown. But the smaller scale here makes the twists more palatable, and the small number of dread-inducing moments seem to have that effect more on adults, who have a logical picture of the world, than on children, who are more open to imagination. On the flip side, you’ll probably care more than the kiddos that the denouement doesn’t seem to dénouer much at all.
Lastly, the plot may be motivated by mystery, but it succeeds on character growth. Aoyama is convinced that his prodigious knowledge and precocious research abilities alone destine him for greatness, but the arc of his relationship with the Lady, and his relationship with Hamamoto, teaches him a thing or two about human psychology, sometimes forcibly so, that are the true markers of adulthood. One of these lessons in personal growth has to do with death and loss, and parents should be aware that their kid might have some awkward questions walking out.
“Penguin Highway” largely delivers on its promise of cuteness and mystery, and adds wonder and heart for good measure. Only very rarely dumbing things down for the kiddie crowd, it’s a pretty good investment of two hours of your time. And stick around for Utada Hikaru’s end credits song, “Good Night.”
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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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