Penguin Highway

From the nation that gave us Pingu in the City comes this 2018 anime about a precocious fourth-grader (Kana Kita) investigating a sudden influx of penguins. Waddle they think up next?

Probably the best movie title since Executive Koala, Penguin Highway is a weird film – not my words, those of the source novel’s author Tomihiko Morimi. It flits between whimsical fantasy, cosmic sci-fi and creepy romance, the latter concerning our young hero and a dental hygienist with Penguin Energy (Yû Aoi). There’s a strange preoccupation with teeth and tits that makes the picture feel unfocused, particularly compared with this year’s stellar ‘boy meets girl with magical nature powers’ offering Weathering With You.

Nevertheless Penguin Highway is intriguingly odd and wondrously charming, its warm sense of humour apparent in the winning precociousness of its protagonist. The interdimensional penguins, a mysterious sphere of water and his unattainable crush all represent the edges of the boy’s world, and the boundless possibilities of an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Studio Colorido’s animation makes gorgeous use of dappled shadows and refracted light, as well as the funny-looking birds themselves – straight up penguins instead of the genre’s usual anthropomorphised animals.

Morimi cites Solaris as an influence on his story that pays tribute to the scientific method, Albert Einstein and Lewis Carroll, making for a trippy tale that puts the “high” in “Highway”. Although too long (Morimi says director Hiroyasu Ishida was perhaps too faithful to his novel), Penguin Highway succeeds as a surreal, serene splash of magical realism.

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