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Penguin Highway
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by Jay Seaver

"Crushes, science, and cute flightless birds."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: For a movie about penguins just showing out of nowhere in a precocious kid's hometown, and that being the tip of the iceberg as far as weirdness gets, "Penguin Highway" can be kind of dry. There's an angle from which that's kind of nifty - the film and its hero don't just love science as a reference book that contains interesting facts, but as a rigorous process that allows them to expand their knowledge - but that does cut down on the goofy antics, and the strangeness gets kind of straight-faced at times. It's got a bunch of fun scenes when things do get silly, but its whimsy and focus do sometimes work at cross purposes.

Aoyama (voice of Kana Kita) is a very focused fourth-grader, whether one is talking about his studies, his attempts to beat his classmate Hamamoto at chess, retaliating at the guys who bullied his friend Uchida without throwing a punch, pursuing his intense crush on the busty receptionist at the dentist's office (voice of Yu Aoi), or investigating just where the heck all the penguins who show up out of nowhere are coming from and going. What he doesn't initially realize is that there's another scientific mystery, just outside of town, that may dwarf a bunch of random penguins.

Most kids' movies position the kid like Aoyama as a side character - even when the main character is a meant to be sort of a nerd, this guy is so eccentric that he makes the other guy more relatable for a large audience. He is, at times, humorous and frustrating in equal measures and often for the same reasons: The very serious, self-important knowledge of just how smart he is can make a viewer nod every time someone seems exasperated with the little brat, but is also fantastic raw material for voice actress Kana Kita to make deadpan magic (aided by animators giving him a small mouth inside a big, round kid's face for those lines). He's definitely a weird kid that takes some effort on the part of the audience, but the filmmakers make his quirks add up to something rather than making them things that must be chipped away.

The story he finds himself a part of isn't necessarily as well-formed as he is himself. It's certainly got a bunch of entertaining pieces, from the penguins to the strange hovering vortex to the other peculiar manifestations, but it sometimes seems like director Hiroyasu Ishida and screenwriter Makoto Ueda (working from the novel by Hiroyasu Ishida) are connecting those bits in haphazard fashion, making big leaps despite the film talking about science advancing by increments, or never quite grappling with how the friendship between Aoyama and "The Lady" is at least in the general neighborhood of peculiar. That this young woman is unnamed in the English subtitles is itself kind of weird (she is called "Onê-san" on reference sites); it seems like that should mean something but nothing is done with it.

Still, it's got great bits, especially when it's just looking at how the kids bounce off each other. It's genuinely clever how the audience doesn't realize that Hamamoto is nearly as prickly and nerdy as Aoyama until a ways in, in part because the film is mostly from his perspective and he doesn't expect that from a cute girl any more than much of the audience does. The seemingly chaotic last act probably holds together better than it initially seems to when one considers how much the adults likely aren't telling the kids.

On top of that, the animation is excellent. Production company Studio Colorido is one of several animation houses founded by people who worked for Studio Ghibli before they (mostly) shifted from producing new works to IP management, with character designer Yojiro Arai most obviously influenced by his former employers. Though the animation is mostly (if not entirely) digital, it mimics traditional animation and blends that form's freedom of movement with detailed environments exceptionally well, if not always perfectly. That style does give it a big leg up both in how cute and whimsical things like the penguins or the young characters are and in how, when things transform or the impossible otherwise happens, it looks less like special effects than a sort of magic (though Aoyama and Hamamoto would certainly not describe it that way).

At nearly two full hours, it's a sizable animated film that may have some in the audience squirming, and though it's very kid-friendly, it was the second animated film that features boys obsessing over a woman's breasts in the festival (which is admittedly realistic but makes me wonder about the raised eyebrows I'd get from my brothers if I gave copies to my nieces). It's nevertheless a cute little movie that has kids excited to figure things out without becoming dull.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32449&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/22/18 03:11:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Hiroyasu Ishida

Written by
  Makoto Ueda

Cast
  Kana Kita
  Y Aoi



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