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Penguin Highway (2018)

Aoyama is a fourth-grader with big ideas and an even bigger amount of self-belief. He is sure he's meant for great things and is even keeping a count-down of how many days remain until he becomes an adult. When one day penguins begin to mysteriously appear in his village, he decides to investigate, with the help of his school friends. The penguins are just the start of a series of bizarre events- but just what's behind them and how is connected to the young woman from the local dental clinic- who also happens to be his first crush?

Penguin Highway is the first feature-length release from Studio Colorido and director Hiroyasu Ishida. It received its world premiere as part of the the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada and won the Satoshi Kon Award for Best Animated Feature. It was released in Japan on August 17 2018 and is due to be released theatrically in 2019 by Anime Limited in the UK and Eleven Arts Anime Studio in the United States.

The film is adapted from a 2010 novel by Tomihiko Morimi, the author of the books that Tatami Galaxy and The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl were based on. Which should probably be as good an indicator as any that this is going to be a somewhat quirky story- and it very much proves to be the case.

As protagonists go, Aoyama is rather unconventional. This straight-A student is probably the kind of lead character you would only find in a Japanese story (or perhaps a Wes Anderson film). His extreme self-confidence could be seen as arrogant, yet somehow he never comes across as unlikeable. He wins sympathy for being the target of a class bully, but he turns the tables and never feels like a victim.

When the penguins (a species not native to Japan) start mysteriously materialising, his reaction is not like the other children. It appeals to his intellectual curiosity and sees him apply a rigorous scientific method to try to uncover this seemingly impossible phenomenon. And when it's clear that the dental assistant (who is never actually named in the film) is somehow connected to these events, he becomes even more determined.

The relationship between Aoyama and the woman he refers to simply as 'The Lady' or oneesan (meaning big sister) is central to the film. We essentially see her through his eyes, meaning she is idealised and almost ethereal. Yes, her characterisation is pretty shallow, but her mystery is part of the plot. Their bond, however, feels genuine, warm and playful and is the emotional core of the story.

The plot may be strange but this film should still have a pretty universal appeal. Unlike the other Morimi adaptations, this is aimed firmly at family audiences and will please viewers of all ages.

It's a beautiful film to look at, too. There's vibrant and colourful animation, excellent character animation and gorgeous backgrounds that any of the well-established studios would be proud of. It's sometimes hard to believe that this is Colorido's first feature.

It just wouldn't be right to discuss Penguin Highway any further without mentioning the film's true stars. By which of course, I mean the penguins themselves.

There have been numerous iconic appearances of penguins in animation over the years, from Feathers McGraw to Madagascar. Even so, the Adelie penguins of Penguin Highway stand out from the pack. The way the animators have brought them to life with such skill is simply incredible. They are animated distinctly more realistically than the rest of the characters- but somehow, it doesn't seem out of place. They steal the show from the moment they waddle onto the screen, and only the most stony-hearted individual could resist cracking a smile. Which in the end, is a pretty accurate summing up of the film as a whole.

Penguin Highway is an incredibly charming film that is a pleasure from beginning to end. Based on this highly confident calling card from Studio Colorido and Ishida, we can't wait to see what they get up to next.

FORMAT: Theatrical. FROM: πŸ‡¬πŸ‡§ ANIME LTD πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ ELEVEN ARTS ANIME STUDIO  [2019 TBA] RATING: Not rated RUNNING TIME : 1hr 57 Minutes

IN A NUTSHELL: Surreal, sweet and packed full of adorable penguins, Penguin Highway is an oddball delight.

* Screener provided by Fantasia Festival*