Penguin Highway is the first full length anime film from Studio Colorido and is an adaptation of the 2010 novel of the same name by Tomihiko Morimi. The film centres around Aoyama, a fourth grade boy who you’ll realise right from the opening of the film, seems to be a 30 year old man trapped in a 10 year old’s body. That’s not the case, but in trying to follow in his father’s footsteps as a researcher, Aoyama has very clear goals for how he expects his life to play out and is even counting down the days until he becomes an adult.
Aoyama is constantly jotting down interesting findings and theories in his notebooks which leads him to try and uncover the mystery that makes up the major plot line in the film.
After groups of penguins start appearing around town, a town that is nowhere near a large body of water or near the south pole it definitely needs some investigating. This investigation takes Aoyama on a heartwarming journey with his friends Hamamoto, Uchida and a dental assistant referred to only as ‘The Lady’ as he tries to uncover the mystery that explains the link between the vanishing penguins, The Lady and an ominous ball of energy found in the local forest.
Penguin Highway holds a 2 hour runtime which is on the longer end of the scale when it comes to anime films but I did find myself invested the whole time due to it’s steady pacing and because I also wanted to get to the bottom of the mysteries and find out the same answers Aoyama was searching for.
The film starts off quite grounded and realistic but gets more and more supernatural as it goes along. So much so that I could completely understand anyone that calls the third act ‘weird’ or states that they ‘didn’t get it’. While I enjoyed these scenes and what they were were doing on a story and world building level I can see them not being everyone’s cup of tea. Especially if they prefer a more cut and dry story that doesn’t require looking into things in a metaphorical way.
One of the strengths of Penguin Highway is that it’s cast of characters are relatable and likable. We’ve all had childhood adventures with friends where we’ve let our imaginations run wild or gotten up to things intended for people much older. The core cast of characters in the film are kept quite limited too allowing for a much tighter story not relying on shallow plot threads or interactions with filler characters just to extend runtime.
The characters and the world of Penguin Highway are very pleasing on the eye. The character models aren’t treated with the overly glossy, super highlighted look a lot of feature film anime get these days but are instead a good blend between Mamoru Hosoda’s mostly flat warm colour palette and Studio Ghibli’s story book aesthetic.
I was actually thinking while watching the film that the characters look like they were very Ghibli inspired which is a thing I hate to think because most anime feature films get compared to Ghibli works far too often. But I was glad to find out my thoughts were warranted here. The character designer Yojiro Arai is an ex Ghibli staff member and his designs seem to have been worked into Penguin Highway. The character of Dr Hamamoto looks like he’s jumped straight out of the works of Ghibli.
And speaking of Mamoru Hosoda, Penguin Highway also has the same extremely detailed and vibrant background art that his films do. The forests, streets and supernatural worlds are all so packed full of detail that there are multiple points of interest in just about every scene of the film.
But characters and backgrounds only get you so far if the animation quality is poor. Thankfully in Penguin Highway it’s fantastic. With special mention having to go to the scenes involving the stretching and morphing of everyday objects into penguins. It’s so silky smooth and well done. The film is well animated overall but it’s scenes like these that elevate it above your standard anime production.
Penguin Highway does contain a decent amount of CG, used primarily to enhance certain scenes with various effects. It’s implementation is normally quite subtle and blends with the traditional animation well, for the most part. With the film’s plot involving the theme of water I was glad to see it presented in a realistic way. With running streams and scenes involving a flood looking fantastic.
Although it seems not every scene was treated with equal levels of care. While most of the CG blends well with the art style of the movie I did notice a few times towards the end of the third act where CG was used for the popping of water bubbles that it became really noticeable, and fell into what I call the Play-Doh effect. It was a little disappointing to see especially when water and other CG effects leading up to that point had looked so good.
Penguin Highway’s story has some ambiguous points towards it’s ending which leave certain outcomes up to the viewers own interpretation. I’m a fan of this in many anime films, not only does it allow different viewers to walk away from the film with their own impression if what has or will happen in the world of the film, it also promotes a lot of discussion in online message boards or analysis video’s that allow this film to be discussed on a deeper level, helping the film be loved for many years to come and not lost in the sea of other anime films and series’ we get nowadays.
With Studio Colorido able to pull off great characters, excellent environments and silky smooth animation they’ve cemented themselves as a studio to keep an eye on in future. Their first feature film Penguin Highway will be talked about and speculated on for years to come. I found myself quite invested in the world and characters of Penguin Highway and am now interested in picking up the original novel to find out more about them.