When scores of penguins suddenly appear in this rural Japanese village, it is a little like “Magnolia,” but exponentially cuter. In fact, these penguins might just save our world as we know it, but until then, they are quite charming to have around in Hiroyasu Ishida’s “Penguin Highway,” which won the Satoshi Kon Award for Excellence in Animation at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Aoyama is a reasonably well-socialized fourth grader, considering how smart he is. Nevertheless, the compulsively experimenting science whiz is already looking forward to his future success. When “waddles” of penguins start waddling through his baffled town—way outside their natural habitat, obviously—Aoyama is the first to start formulating hypotheses.
Of course, that means he starts researching in the field, with the help of his loyal pal Uchida. However, he is also rather interested in the mysterious woman One-san, now working at the local dentist, whom he gallantly refers to as “The Lady.”
She is smart and has attitude, as well as other things a boy on the verge of puberty might notice. (She is voiced by Yu Aoi, after all.) Aoyama realizes he can learn a lot from her just from their conversations and chess games. However, his interest in her rises to a higher level when he realizes she apparently has a mysterious connection to the penguins.
As if that were not enough, Aoyama and Uchida also help their classmate Hamamoto investigate a phenomenon that pretty clearly holds cosmic significance. Hamamoto is also quite the junior scientist, which is probably why she has a crush on Aoyama.
“Highway” is surprisingly intriguing as science fiction, warmly endearing as a coming-of-age story, and it is just the living end as a penguin fantasy. Despite the borderline “Summer of ’42” relationship between Aoyama and The Lady, the film has a lot to offer family viewers, including lessons on the scientific method and the depiction of two fathers who are smart and engaged parents (Aoyama’s and Hamamoto’s dads). Plus, there are all those fun-loving penguins.
The animation (with character design work from Yojiro Arai) is visually quite lovely, but it is the film’s bittersweet vibe that really sticks with you. The trappings are contemporary, but the narrative has a timeless element to it.
When you get right down to it, it would be ever so nice to stroll through this burg in the foothills, with a dozen penguins for company.
To his credit, Makoto Ueda never dumbs down his screen adaptation of Tomihiko Morimi’s source novel. There is some clever stuff in here, and the stakes get planetary in scope. Yet, it still faithfully evokes all the optimism and confusion of young adolescence—with penguins.
This film is just a total winner that is just too good for American anime fans to miss out on. Very enthusiastically recommended, “Penguin Highway” had its international premiere at this year’s Fantasia and opens April 12.
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com