As I inch closer to the end of March, my desire to write super in-depth reviews for films decreases dramatically. On top of what I also do for my job (additional writing), it’s a whole lot of writing in one day. And I’m currently sporting a lovely headache. Let’s see how long I can go before I can’t take it.
Many years ago (hell…), I wrote a Top 10 involving anime series that crashed and burned. These series started out pretty great, and were smooth-sailing to a nice finish when something, whatever it may have been, thwarted it. While not a death wish for every victim, it can occasionally ruin an entire experience for a viewer based on a compact, distasteful finale. Perceptive readers will understand where this is going.
Penguin Highway seemed like a really fun, expressive watch. With a synopsis that just exudes “ANIME” in all caps, I figured I’d give it a shot, given my enthusiasm for anime has been crushed by tons of mediocre-quality series. I liked Totoro, after all. Maybe this will follow suit?
Immediately, I thought I hit a home run. The characters were vibrant! Animation was vivid and colorful! It was weird! It was intriguing! A feeling was growing, deep down inside, which I hadn’t felt for anime since… well, Totoro, but before that, I have no idea: fun. So much fun! Quirky and weird, yet so wonderfully full of heart.
And so it kept going. On and on, it showed quite a lot, especially in the first hour or so. By the fifty-minute mark, I felt like I had watched an entire film, especially given the occasionally aloof natures of the films I’ve watched so far this month. Bloated with so many things, so many characters; how would they manage to concisely wrap up everything? The answer is that they don’t… entirely.
Without spoiling specific details, I don’t really like how this film is resolved. Not necessarily how it ends, but how it’s resolved, how the conflict is settled. It reeks of a sort of up-against-the-wall compromise where the writer wasn’t sure how to logically contain all that was occurring.
To indulge a bit, weird things are happening to a town due to the appearance of penguins. What they mean and what they’re there for becomes a mystery a boy takes upon himself to solve. As the plot progresses, the mystery becomes more illogical, relying on outside-the-box thinking to solve as the town begins to hinge on serious destruction.
Consider it two halves of a whole: The first half of Penguin Highway is about discovery—a new thread to investigate and the characters that will become important later on. Masterfully identifying character quirks and establishing relationships that the male lead shares with individuals. One can easily identify those that influence his life, and him fighting with the general expectations of his age are rather cute. I don’t think there was a single aspect I genuinely disliked.
The second half is something I generally harp on general anime series for doing: being dramatically serious/dark. Not so much in itself, but following a period of generally lighthearted, carefree tones. Something about the drastic turn from sweet to serious irks me, and while it’s not a drastic shift here, it still kind of took me out of it. The film’s runtime felt all the heavier in this second half, with a lot of the charm from characters and such being shoved off for world-ending stakes and d r a m a. Pretty tiresome stuff.
If that wasn’t enough, there’s a notable emphasis on “boobs” in this film. To some degree, it makes sense thematically—the male lead is in love and on the cusp of developing sexual curiosity. That said, it kind of comes up a lot… too much, even. Most egregiously, a fight occurs at one point between the male lead and a girl his age that is hinted at having feelings for him, and what does she bring up? “Onee-san—” (male lead’s love interest) “—has big boobs, huh?” Dude, c’mon. Just drop it. The world does not revolve around boobs. She could’ve said “because she’s older,” “because she’s prettier”; nope, boobs.
Such a shame, as I was flirting with the idea of giving this as high as a 9/10. Now, any average person will read that and go, “Oh, that’s neat.” Regular readers will read that and go, “Oh, fuck, ratings that high exist on this website?” I cannot overstate how much I adored this film in its first half. The main character is great, the sense of discovery and maturing is super solid, the whole look of the film is lovely… A big, sloppy chef’s kiss. Unfortunately, it slows down tremendously, and ends up overambitious with its themes and characters, ending with an acceptable, though slightly underwhelming boom. And boobs.
A very heavy recommendation. Just… don’t expect a wonderful product all the way through.
Final Score: 7.5/10
The rating for all other anime can be found on MyAnimeList.
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!