It's fascinating how different directors can translate the style of the same author. The new anime film Penguin Highway is based on a novel by Tomihiko Moromi, probably best known for writing works that inspired Masaaki Yuasa's The Tatami Galaxy and The Night is Short, Walk On Girl. Comparing the anime of Penguin Highway with Tatami Galaxy and Night is Short, it's easy to see the ideas coming from the same mind. All three have similar quirky senses of humor and combine realistic characters with absurd fantasy/sci-fi elements.
In Yuasa's adaptations, however, the wacky and the surreal is dominant, even when dealing with the more mundane parts of the story. His art is graphic and cartoony, and his direction moves at a pace so fast that subtitle readers might have trouble catching up. Penguin Highway, the feature debut of Hiroyasu Ishida and Studio Colorido, couldn't be a more different approach to the same sort of material. Much slower-paced, and with more naturalistic animation, it emphasizes the "realism" in "magical realism."
Penguin Highway is perhaps too slow for its own good. It would probably be more exciting if 10 to 20 minutes were shaved from its nearly two-hour runtime. Yet the film rewards your patience with moments that are truly magical, and the sharp characterization makes the quieter scenes emotionally compelling. At the very least, watch Penguin Highway to experience something you've never seen before.
If one were to reduce Penguin Highway to "X meets Y" fashion, the description would be "if Studio Ghibli made FLCL." That's a comparison that sounds like it could either be the best thing ever, or else the absolute worst. Ghibli and FLCL are great, of course, but they're also opposites. The heartwarming gentleness of Kiki's Delivery Service or Whisper of the Heart and the manic, hormonal punk-rock attitude of FLCL are opposing extremes in how to handle a coming-of-age story.
Does Penguin Highway combine those wildly different approaches into something mind-blowing, or do the strengths cancel each other out? The answer is in the middle. Penguin Highway isn't as great as FLCL or as the best Ghibli films, but its in-between style is nevertheless compelling in its oddness.
One area in which absolutely lives up to Ghibli standards is in the animation. Some ex-Ghibli animators, notably Hiroshi Shimizu, worked on Penguin Highway. It's not so much that the film looks exactly like a Ghibli film, design-wise (it's not a stylistic imitation the way Studio Ponoc's work has been), but its animation emphasizes the same qualities. The characters are moderately stylized, but move convincingly with real weight and dimension. They're expressive without going for the super-deformed wild takes common in anime. The penguins are animated adorably, of course, and while the film is mostly low-key, the occasional action setpieces are visually breathtaking.
The FLCL comparison comes into play with the themes of the story. Penguin Highway is safe for viewers ages 10 and up, easily more tween-friendly than the outrageous Adult Swim hit, but it's more frank about the awakening of sexual feelings in puberty than most U.S. films about fourth-graders. Penguin Highway's Aoyama is a more proactive protagonist than FLCL's Naota, but it's easy to draw parallels between the two. Both are anxious to grow up, and find their everyday lives disrupted by both sci-fi weirdness and their developing feelings for an adult woman whose identity might be connected to those events. Aoyama even looks like a two-years-younger version of Naota.
One appealing aspect of Aoyama's character is how he approaches all of those changes in his life through science. Penguins are appearing in the middle of a Japanese suburb? Trace their routes to observe their behavior. Women's breasts are suddenly becoming weirdly enticing? Come up with theories as to how that works, too. Your crush transforms a soda can into a penguin? Perform experiments to prove the incident is non-falsifiable.
Penguin Highway is unpredictable. Those soda-can penguins are only the tip of the iceberg for how wonderfully bizarre elements of this film can get. Yet for all the external weirdness, the drive of the story is internal and subtle. It's far from the most thrilling anime movie, and in the early going it could, frankly, use some stronger narrative drive, but the story thoughtfully done and relatable. Those who love the art of animation and want to seek out something new and different from the norm are advised to see Penguin Highway.
Penguin Highway is playing in select theaters in the United States and Canada.