In a peaceful suburban area, a young intelligent 4th grader, Aoyama, is surprised to find a line of penguins appears out of nowhere. Without a moment to spare, Aoyama quickly delves into the mystery of the penguins’ appearances. It is a story of a genius boy enraptured by the penguins, a mysterious sphere in the middle of a forest, monsters lurking in the dark, and a young woman who holds the string to all these mysterious occurrences.
Although it is far too soon to be calling it the anime movie of the year, I definitely think Penguin Highway is a big contender. It is intriguing, mysterious, and most importantly of all, absolutely magical. What’s even more telling of its art and storytelling craft is that months after watching the movie, I look back at the posters and the trailers and only seem to remember it as even more enchanting than the last.
It’s hard to dig into Penguin Highway’s plot in a review simply because the story is so atmospheric, you can only feel the inspiration behind something so surreal by watching it instead of reading it with words. Which is an excellent thing, in my opinion, because the point of a movie is to experience it with your own eyes and ears. It should not be replaceable by a single article, and the fact that I cannot articulate more of the story is proof of how well written Penguin Highway truly is as a movie.
I emphasize on the atmosphere a lot because of how absolutely relatable the movie was. While the main protagonist is a 4th-grade boy and the view of the world and narration of the story is seen through the eyes of a child, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic in an atmosphere that’s tinged with sweet childhood innocence, unadulterated curiosity, and endless imagination. This is honestly what sells Penguin Highway to me so much because it is not just meant for children to enjoy with all its penguins and magic, but also for adults to relive their childhoods and remember what the world once looked like when they were children as well. Aoyama’s imagination and inquisitive nature are just so pure and so real, to the point that even small daily activities like ants crawling on the ground or people playing chess can become fascinating. And I think anyone can remember during childhood that even mundane activities, such as water “growing” after freezing, can appear mysterious and magical.
Of course, this could not have just been established by a good story and good characters when it comes to movies. For one, novels are typically heavy with the description with more emphasis on the narration than dialogue to carry the story, yet I find the adaptation from novel to screen completely seamless. Never was there a point that I found myself thinking that the original source material might’ve done a better job at portraying a specific theme or scene. Penguin Highway can be easily seen as an original movie due to how well the dialogue holds up the storytelling and the world the animation has created.
Just like most notable anime movies, Penguin Highway sports marvelous animation. However, I think where the animation truly shines is not the background, the character design, or the literal action but the movements. The deliberate slinking of the monsters, the clumsy waddling of the penguins, and the movement of simple things like grass and water are what truly breathes life into this animated world. It’s this kind of attention to detail that’s often forgotten in the world of animation, and that attention to detail is something that the legendary Hayao Miyazaki considers to be the lynchpin of animation. I think this particular aspect of the movie also fed into the magic of Penguin Highway – in the most subtle and unconscious way.
Do I recommend Penguin Highway?
Yes, absolutely yes. It’s an anime that has the best elements and themes put together into a movie. There are cute animals, there’s a mystery in place, and there’s a coming-of-age journey for Aoyama and his three friends as they take in the wonders of the world. It’s slice-of-life, but it’s still an adventure. It’s realistic, but it’s still fantasy.
It’s beautifully animated, beautifully acted, and beautifully adapted. Once again, there’s a lot of anime movies to still come out this year, but Penguin Highway has really set the bar high this early on in the year. I especially encourage everyone to see it in theaters and watch up to the very end to witness one of the best-animated scenes I’ve ever seen. Spoilers: there’s lots of penguins, lots of water, and lots of fun!
ELEVEN ARTS Anime Studio is bringing Penguin Highway to US theaters starting April 12th. Check out local theater listings here.