Japanese novelist Tomihiko Morimi's 2010 work Penguin Highway gets the anime treatment in director Hiroyasu Ishida's 2018 big-screen adaptation of the same name, and its mishmash of sci-fi weirdness and grounded young-adult tale is adorable, well-crafted and moving all at once. Ishida founded the film's animation company Colorido alongside former Studio Ghibli animator Yojiro Arai, and though shades of Hayao Miyazaki's legendary style do peek out from time to time, Penguin Highway is about as strong and original a debut as we could hope for.
Precocious and conceited 9-year-old Aoyama spends his days concocting experiments and filling notebooks with hypotheses. But when he applies his scientific and experimental mind to the case of the mysteriously appearing penguins in his small suburban Japanese town—far from their natural habitat— the answers he seeks become more baffling and terrifying than he or his cadre of pals is prepared for. Can an oddball dental hygienist known as The Lady be at the center of the rapidly escalating penguin conundrum, and is the universe as they know it collapsing on itself?
Penguin Highway is a triumph, not just in the telling of a complex story aimed at kids in an understandable fashion, but in its razor-sharp wit and endearing cast of characters. Aoyama (voiced by Japanese TV star Kana Kita) strikes a believable balance between insufferable know-it-all and insecure child on the cusp of big things, both personally and scientifically. We might want to hate him had he been written even slightly differently, but we grow to love and believe in him despite a subtle mean streak that appears when the chips are down. The Lady (Yû Aoi), meanwhile, becomes a sublime counterbalance to his actions and desperation to grow up, reeling him in and keeping him young, as he should be.
Elsewhere, the film shifts effortlessly between Aoyama's thirst for knowledge and everyday fourth-grader drama, and though his fascination with women's breasts is downright uncomfortable, we otherwise land firmly in his corner.
The animation, from the gorgeous hand-drawn backgrounds and cinematic angles to the jaw-dropping action scenes and seamlessly included CGI, is absolutely stunning. Colorido knocks it out of the park from a technical standpoint, recalling the quiet majesty of a forest at one moment and quickly transitioning to something akin to the mad dash toward the end of Ghibli's Ponyo the next. Charm and substance to the front, it seems, particularly when it comes to the message: Namely, it's wonderful to aspire to great things, but we must never forget who we actually are.
Take your kids, take yourself, just see Penguin Highway immediately.
+Gorgeous and fun; endearing
-The thing about breasts feels wrong
Directed by Ishida
With Kita and Aoi
Jean Cocteau Cinema, NR, 118 min.