You know, it’s really fairly rare for me to go into a movie with absolutely no idea what to expect. After all, in this information age of the internet and trailers and twitter news and so on and so forth, by the time a certain movie comes out I usually have at least some idea of what the basic premise is, what kind of tone or style it’s going for and so on and so forth. Sometimes that’s because I deliberately sought that information out, sometimes it’s just osmosis from the marketing campaign or from the sheer amount of trailers I tend to watch in the cinema.
However, this was a movie that I actually went in pretty blind to. All I knew about it was the title and that it involved an epidemic of mysteriously appearing penguins. I didn’t know if it was a kids movie, a fantastical romance along the lines of Your Name, a weird sci-fi or a hard-hitting emotional drama. (I’ll admit the title probably should’ve hinted away from that last one, but this is the same festival where I saw ‘I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’, after all.) So I really had absolutely no idea what to expect or whether I’d enjoy it or not.
With that said, I get the feeling that even I did have significant foreknowledge of what this movie was about, I’m still pretty sure it would’ve really surprised me. It’s a strange, weird, unique little movie and, quite honestly, I enjoyed the hell out of it.
The movie itself is about a very very precocious kid, who styles himself as a would-be genius, and his attempts to scientifically solve the mystery of strangely appearing penguins, a hole in space/time and why boobs are so appealing. Weirdly enough, if I had to put any kind of genre label on this movie, it’s technically kind of a Mystery. (That is to say a movie in the Mystery Genre, not that the genre is a… you get the idea.) There are no dead bodies, but there is a strange mysterious problem, clues are slowly gathered about it over the course of the movie and the protagonist eventually brings it all together in a big eureka moment. But while it has kind of a mystery template to it, it doesn’t really feel like it sums up everything this movie is. But I’ll get into that a bit later.
Now, a large amount of credit as to why I enjoyed this movie so much has to go to the main protagonist, who is great fun to follow. It’s very easy to take the ‘child genius’ sort of character and make him obnoxious as hell (see The Book of Henry), but honestly this movie really makes it work, not least of which because it so often shows that the kid is still pretty immature, albeit in his own ways, and he still really acts like a kid, albeit a kid trying really hard to appear grown up. Watching him attempt to maintain his mature composure in the face of numerous events and seeing the occasional childishness poke through is really enjoyable to watch.
However and equal amount of credit ought to go to the arguable deuteragonist of the movie, an adult nurse who has some connection to the mysterious penguins and strikes up a strange friendship with Aoyama which is honestly one of the most endearing parts of the whole movie. The two have some great back and forths and it never ends up feeling creepy, in spite of Aoyama’s implied crush on her. Most of the rest of side cast is good too, especially Uchida, Aoyama’s poor put upon best friend, who probably acts the most like a realistic kid in this movie.
I also really enjoyed how the movie handled the mystery and reveal. It’s difficult to balance a mystery and provide enough clues so that your audience could theoretically figure it out themselves, without making it way too obvious. And, while I’m sure some people probably worked it out early, I think they struck that balance really well. Heck, I was genuinely uncertain how they were going to bring all the strange clues and threads together into a competent whole but the movie really pulled it off. Or at least it did technically. Because while it provided a good explanation for the mystery, it also left a lot of questions unanswered which… honestly, made me like it even more. Because it knew the right kind of questions to leave unanswered. It answered the right questions to tie up the story into a satisfying conclusion and feel like a complete story, but it left open exactly what it needed to to make the story feel like something greater.
Because this movie is a lot of things. It’s a Mystery story, yes, but it’s also comedic and dramatic and everything in between. It’s about lots of things, from growing up, to death, to learning to see things beyond your bubble, to the mysteries of the universe and the drive to learn more and so on and so forth. The original story it’s adapting from happens to be from the same writer who did works like the Tatami Galaxy and my personal favourite movie of 2017, ‘Night is Short, Walk on Girl’ (which I learned this fact approximately 5 minutes before the movie started, because the guy introducing the film mentioned it) and I feel like this movie is very much like that one in its mix of both surreal and surprisingly profound themes. Yeah, that’s right. I’m calling the movie about magically appearing penguins ‘profound’. I’m as surprised as you are.
To sum up, Penguin Highway was not at all what I was expecting and I adored it for that. It’s a strange unique little gem of a movie that I didn’t know where it would go next, yet still somehow fit together like a perfectly constructed jigsaw piece. If I had any complaints, it’s that it did feel like it could use trimming in a few places, possibly went on a touch too long and, minus an amazingly trippy and mid-bending sequence in the climax, was fairly basically animated. I’d probably count it a touch below Night is Short, Walk on Girl, simply because, in spite of the excellent aforementioned trippy sequence, it lacks Yuasa’s unique visual style, but the fact that I consider even on the same level is astounding in itself and I entirely recommend anyone interested to go and check it out.
Overall Grade: A/A-