A trio of kids work to understand just what the hell is going on in Studio Colorido’s fantasy/sci-fi adventure.
“Can you solve this mystery?”
You know what, I’m starting to think I shouldn’t assume to know what will happen in a Studio Colorido film. I had assumed A Whisker Away was just a simple love story about how a cat brought two people together – and boy was I wrong – and looking at the poster for their previous film Penguin Highway, again I was expecting something low-key and sweet about childhood and summer breaks and what have you. Once again, I was basically dead wrong.
The movie starts with little preamble, so I will too: it immediately gives us the promised penguins who suddenly appear out of nowhere in the middle of a small Japanese town, in the middle of July. Aoyama is a precocious ten-year-old who, with his oft-bullied friend Uchida decide to investigate. Both boys are super into science and keen to get to the bottom of the mystery but Aoyama’s attentions are split. He has a huge crush on a local dental nurse, who seems way too OK with spending all her spare time with a boy one third her age awkwardly going through puberty and who won’t stop staring at her chest.
One day, when Aoyama and Uchida are following the trail of the mysterious penguins, they come across their school friend Hamamoto who has discovered an enormous ball of water floating in the middle of the field. She too just loves the prospect of endless scientific observation, and the trio team up to try to understand the meaning behind all of these events. But things might not be as they seem at first, and perhaps Aoyama’s ever-unnamed dentist crush might be more than she claims to be.
One of the first things that struck me about Penguin Highway was just how much of the story focuses on the advantages of the scientific method. It features a number of montages of Aoyama and his friends conducting experiments to try to understand the nature of the strange phenomena and that surprised me. A lot of films don’t tend to bother with the details that go into the sheer amounts of tests and trials scientists run to make any half-accurate scientific observations. This works towards a number of goals too as this allows the kids to exposit amongst themselves – letting the audience follow along with them and offers the audience a glimpse into the interactions and chemistry between its leads.
But most importantly, those scenes actually give this pretty out-there plot a realism that would be sorely lacking otherwise. Because Penguin Highway is a very, very weird movie: the sort of thing that wouldn’t get made in Hollywood because it might alienate audiences. Penguin Highway’s plot, while straightforward in a lot ways, doesn’t do a lot to explain itself until the final act and even then it ends up raising more questions than anything else. It’s a great mystery that gets more and fun as it goes on, but the conclusion left a little bit to be desired, personally.
Thankfully, the story isn’t the biggest driving force that Penguin Highway has. The main characters are all charming and fun to be around – and even the bullies get a chance to shine. On a more literal use of the word shine, visually, this is a gorgeous movie: loaded with beautiful backgrounds of a warm, summery Japanese countryside, and fluid animation which bursts with personality in every scene. I didn’t get a chance to talk much about the art in A Whisker Away, but in both the cosy, comfortable art style really helped sell the feeling it was going for. Here, that sensation of those endless summer days before school started, where you’d spend your time outside with your friends is captured brilliantly without ever going too Makoto Shinkai.
Penguin Highway is a very strange movie that’s about a lot of things: puberty, first crushes, bullies, science and plenty of penguin-related nonsense. I won’t lie and say that I understood everything that happens in it, but that did little to hamper my enjoyment of it. Sometimes you just want to watch as the story, the mystery and the top-notch animation unfurl around you. Much like the experiments the kids spend their summer conducting, a large part of the joy of Penguin Highway comes from the journey itself.
Verdict: Beautiful artwork and a love of science come together to make Penguin Highway an utterly charming, if sometimes baffling, family adventure.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Violence: A bunch of exploding pseudo-penguins
Dentistry: 7/10, though watch out for Stanislav syndrome
Aoyama: Giving off serious Spock vibes at times
Penguin Highway (2018)
Also known asペンギン・ハイウェイ
Director: Hiroyasu Ishida
Writers: Tomihiko Morimi (novel), Makoto Ueda
Kana Kita – Aoyama
Yu Aoi – Lady
Rie Kugimiya – Uchida
Megumi Han – Hamamoto
Miki Fukui – Suzuki
Hidetoshi Nishijima – Aoyama’s Father
Naoto Takenaka – Hamamoto’s Father