Synopsis: Young Aoyama sets out to uncover the mystery behind the penguins that have appeared in a town in rural Japan. Together with his classmates and the town dental assistant, he sets off down the penguin highway to see where it leads.
The medium of 2D animation offers a space for infinite creativity. Whereas live-action is bound by what is physically possible, in 2D animation the mind is the limit. Time and time again animators have proven their imaginations to be limitless – with the most beautiful, most honest results.
Penguin Highway is an achievement of boundless imagination, from the book that serves as source material to the script that came out of it, to some of the best-looking animation I’ve seen in anime. Young, precocious, hyper-intelligent Aoyama (first name unknown, like the rest of the class) wakes up one morning to find that his rural Japanese town has been overrun by penguins. A budding scientist at heart, Aoyama sets out to uncover the mystery behind the penguins. Together with fellow young genius Hamamoto and the quirky dentist down the road with whom he has a crush on, Aoyama walks the penguin highway as a string of strange events rock his little town.
I said earlier that some of the most imaginative films are also the most honest. This is true in spades for Penguin Highway. Aoyama is front and center in this movie, and we’re treated to a view of the world as seen through his young eyes. As a young boy he’s curious, as young boys are, and writer Makoto Ueda and original novel author Tomihiko Morimi capture this perfectly. The genuinity of his pursuit of the central mystery of the movie and the misplaced confidence and arrogance he has in thinking he can solve anything is just how you’d imagine a young kid would see the world. Even the way he makes use of the scientific method is sincerely childlike – with notebook in hand he seeks factual answers for everything, from the sudden appearance of penguins to his crush on his dentist, trying, even, to explain his fixation on her boobs. That part aspect of the movie could have landed in weird territory had the movie been in the hands of writers who don’t understand children, but rather than sexualizing the dentist, we see boobs the way young Aoyama would see boobs – these strange things that he doesn’t quite understand, but would very much like to.
The straight-faced curiosity with which Aoyama approaches the world around him fits perfectly with just how colorful everything is. It’s no overstatement to say Penguin Highway is one of the beautiful animated movies out there, on par with Shinkai’s Your Name and Weathering With You but with the imagination cranked up to eleven. The first time Aoyama caught a penguin spawn into reality (yes) was such a crisp and joyous moment that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when it happened. Later on in the movie as events begin to wind up to fever pitch, we’re treated to a chase sequence as coppers try to apprehend Aoyama and his gang. This sequence concludes with Aoyama and his nurse crush racing through the sky on a raft of flying penguins (yes) as the landscape around them begins to, for lack of better description, visually glitch as a massive blue floating ocean-ball threatens to consume the whole town. So fun, so dynamic, so creative and colorful was this sequence that I found myself laughing the entire time, jaw almost slack, amazed at what was happening on my screen. I remember thinking to myself, as that whole sequence unfolded, that this was what the human imagination would look if you could splatter it across the screen in radiant color. Studio Colorido’s repertoire is chalk-full of acclaimed music videos, and the same love and care they put into their usual 4-minute fare has clearly gone into this most beautiful 2-hour feature anime film.
Studio Colorido’s creative vision is realized so freshly and with such unbounded joy in Penguin Highway that I found myself in love with the movie right up to the credits, set to Hikaru Utada’s absolutely fantastic song, Good Night. From sound production to art and animation to the script and original story it has brought to animated life, Penguin Highway is a production masterpiece and a lovely tale. It doesn’t ask that we take it too seriously. It isn’t shoddily made and it is never insincere, asking instead that we sit back and enjoy uncovering the mystery of the penguin highway, alongside Aoyama and his friends, gawking like children at a world that is beautiful and full of magic.
I do hope you all pick this movie up at some point or other. Take this opportunity to feel young again, and follow the penguin highway to the sea and to the sky and wherever it may lead.
(+) Pristine animation and top-quality production bring this imaginative tale to life
(+) A sincere and believable young cast will make you feel like a child again
(+) You can tell the studio had a lot of fun putting this film together
(-) A certain subplot could come off as being a little uncomfortable, though that wasn’t the case for me