One by One the Penguins Steal my Sanity
What’s the Story?
Aoyama is a boy in the 4th grade. He’s a bit of a precocious sort, very logical in his thinking and with a passion for scientific study. He’s friends with ‘The Lady’, a young woman who works at the local dentist’s office who is rather mysterious. One day, a group of penguins appear in a field with no one having any clue where they came from, or where they went. Aoyama decides to investigate this and soon comes across other strange occurrences, such as a giant floating ball of water and strange creatures in the forest. What is the link between them? Could it be ‘The Lady’? Aoyama will have to travel along the Penguin Highway to find the answer, and maybe even save his town!
Okay, I’m pulling out the ‘Only in Anime’ label again. Because, really, only in anime could you find a film that is so equal parts casual slice-of-life and bizarre fantasy all at once. One minute you’re watching the ordinary school days of a bunch of middle schoolers enjoying their youth and investigating the world around them, the next the whole town’s turned inside out and characters are flying around on the back of a stream of penguins. I have to give the film credit for the brazen way it just throws you into its particular brand of insanity without any real warning. One minute a kid is being tormented by stereotypical school bullies, the next a woman is throwing a can into the air and it turns into a penguin. Does this cause shrieks of alarm? Disbelief? Maybe a rationalisation that they’re hallucinating? Nope. The characters just stare for a brief moment, then nod and jump straight to figuring out how they’re going to investigate this strange phenomenon the world has thrown at them. I kinda love it.
There’s a real sense of child-like wonder to this story, even if our main character is constantly trying to act like a grown up and thinking about how great he’ll be when he’s an adult, also boobs. He thinks about boobs a lot (about thirty minutes a day, which considering the male average is actually a fairly small amount. Sorry, I think I’ve gotten off track here). The world of Penguin Highway is full of mysteries and wonders, but there’s a real sense that if you apply the scientific method hard enough you’ll figure it all out in the end. Even if I don’t quite buy the explanation that this film comes up with for all its mysterious goings on, I do like that idea and it fits the characters of the film. Plus I’m always down for having science and fantasy sitting side by side.
Let’s talk about our characters for a moment, starting with our lead Aoyama. Honestly he had a very fine line to walk, boy genius characters are really hard to get right (most of the time they end up annoying the audience to the point where they’re inflicting even more gruesome deaths on them than the ones they already got in the show. Sorry Adric. If you want some homework do some research into the Doctor Who episode ‘Earthshock’ and see if you can find the claymation additional ending to the story). I mean Aoyama isn’t exactly a genius, but he does start the film telling you how smart he is, which is a very bad sign and then he spends the rest of the film with a very Mr. Spock personality, approaching everything in a very logical fashion. What saves him though is that he has a lot of personality and charm. I think the moment that won me over was when he decided to get back at the aforementioned school bully by telling him he was about to get all his teeth pulled out at the dentist. It showed that he’s not emotionless and a little childish, if in his own unique way. Plus it was kinda funny.
The other characters also share in this sense of fun and charm, honestly I wouldn’t have minded if the whole film was just following Aoyama around in his day-to day life. That montage where Aoyama and his friends just try out different experiments with ‘The Ocean’ and he dreams about winning the Noble Prize where just really heart-warming. Speaking of the ‘The Ocean’, that brings me to ‘The Lady’. Honestly I’m not sure if she veers a little too much into the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ trope for my liking. She’s a lot fun to be around, don’t get me wrong, and it’s not as if she’s there to get Aoyama out of some sort of funk or anything. He starts the film as a perfectly ordinary, happy kid, and ends the film in the same way. She’s really just a mystery for Aoyama to solve and I guess I’m just not sure how I feel about that.
From a visual standpoint the film is really, really pretty. I like the character designs and everything is really bright and colourful without getting too outrageous. There isn’t all that much action, a good portion of the film’s time is spent just letting the characters be and enjoying the ordinary world. When it has to pull out all the stops for a bit of weirdness or a flashy transformation it can and will, but it’s the small moments that matter most, the character reactions and the striking visuals and the film puts all of its effort and attention into them. Plus you get to see hundreds of penguins waddling about the place and who doesn’t want to see that? Penguins are great.
In the end, Penguin Highway, is a film that is really confident in itself. It presents both the fantastical and the ordinary with an equal sense of wonder and approaches everything in a very matter-of-fact way, much like its main character. It’s a lot of fun, with charming characters and striking visuals, but if you’re after a story that moves at a mile a minute then you’ll have to look elsewhere. This film very much moves at its own pace. But hey, it’s got penguins and those are worth the price of admission alone so check this film out.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday or you can follow me on Twitter @ChrisGJoynson.