Penguin Highway Blu-ray Review


Childish Crushes & Mysterious Penguins

Penguin Highway sees an inquisitive fourth grader investigating the mysterious appearance of penguins in his hometown during summer vacation, leading to an unforgettable adventure for him and his friends. Surreal and charming by turns, director Hiroyasu Ishida’s feature debut is based upon author Tomihiko Morimi’s bestselling novel of the same name.

The 2018 anime film blends a passion for science, childhood whimsy and grand fantasy storytelling centered around school children as the protagonists. Not to mention penguins, penguins, and more penguins. Combining slice-of-life touches with mystery, humor, child-like wonder and a hint of romance, Penguin Highway comfortably settles in as quirky fun for younger audiences.

Precocious fourth grader Aoyama can’t wait to grow up and become an adult. Already the smartest student in school, he brings a scientific passion studying the mysteries around him, including his burgeoning discovery of girls.

Penguin Highway at its best plays out as a kinder, gentler version of Stranger Things

Hundreds of miles from the sea in Japan, penguins have begun appearing around his town. Investigating the mystery, Aoyama discovers the penguins may be related to a young woman from his dentist’s office. The woman soon begins teaching chess to him, leading to Aoyama developing a childish crush on her.

Like any school boy, Aoyama has his challenges. There’s Suzuki, the school bully that attempts to make Aoyama’s life miserable. Hamamoto is the new girl in school, smart in her own right and with a similar curiosity about the world. She plays chess with Aoyama, which leads to them developing a friendship as they “share” research.

It’s a mostly normal life that gets up-ended when Aoyama’s investigations lead to a mysterious object hidden away in the middle of a nearby forest. It’s up to Aoyama and his friends to investigate what’s really happening. He dreams of publishing his findings and winning a Nobel Prize, if only meddling adults would stay out of his way.

Penguin Highway at its best plays out as a kinder, gentler version of Stranger Things, told in a relaxed manner common to slice-of-life anime. Made with definite anime sensibilities, some of the odder elements stick out. Aoyama’s crush on the adult woman is played earnestly for character development. But how it plays out is something you wouldn’t find in Western entertainment.

Sweet and mostly charming, Penguin Highway is a child-like delight made for younger children. It’s hard not imagining intelligent young boys heavily identifying with Aoyama and his fantastical adventures.

Video

Animated by the relatively new Studio Colorido (Typhoon Noruda), Penguin Highway’s animation has the bright, splashy color palette favored by theatrical anime in Japan. A few CGI elements are tossed in but this is primarily traditional, hand-drawn animation.

Character designs and background elements are fairly pedestrian, reminiscent of anime about school children made for television. Penguin Highway’s best animation attributes are a crisp sense of movement and a few dazzling sequences with stronger key frame rates. Don’t expect masterful line work and overflowing detail on par with Studio Ghibli.

Eleven Arts and distributor Shout Factory bring the 2018 Japanese production to North America in decent Blu-ray quality. It is presented in an unusual for animation 2.20:1 aspect ratio. The 1080P main feature runs 117 minutes, encoded in adequate AVC on a BD-50. Some banding appears, though it’s possibly baked into the animation itself.

Primary colors have even saturation, particularly lush greens and reds. There are no obvious defects that scream out in the pristine animation. This is solid picture quality for so-so animation, a step behind bigger budget animated fare.

Audio

Both the original Japanese soundtrack, and an English dub, receive forgettable but satisfactory 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio options. If something is particularly weak here, it’s the uneven English dub with sub-par performances. I wasn’t impressed by either Aoyama’s English voice or Onee-san’s English voice, rendering stiff and awkward-sounding deliveries for some lines. Neither dub is especially great, so the original Japanese audio wins by default.

The surround mixes are front heavy and lack exciting action. They do a fine job balancing dialogue with the score and sound effects. Rears are mostly for ambient support of the instrumental score. Penguin Highway has basic sound design outside of a few specific scenes. This is largely a dialogue-driven movie.

Possibly due to licensing restrictions, the two sets of provided English subtitles only work with one soundtrack. The English dub has one set of optional English SDH dubtitles, playing in a white font always inside the 2.20:1 widescreen framing. The Japanese soundtrack has a second and different set of English subtitles, directly translating the Japanese dialogue. The second set of English subs can’t be enabled while the English audio plays.

Extras

This Blu-ray and DVD combo set arrives courtesy of Eleven Arts in association with Shout Factory. A slipcover is available. A flyer for Tomihiko Morimi’s novel can be found inside. The Blu-ray is coded for Region A.

Fairly essential supplemental features are provided. The director’s interview reveals a great deal on Penguin Highway’s inspiration and genesis. The special features are in Japanese with English subtitles provided.

It should be noted a limited deluxe version for Penguin Highway is scheduled for later this year in November, which features a special box packaging and artbook, among other goodies.

Director Hiroyasu Ishida Interview (21:06 in HD) – One of the strangest director interviews ever recorded and publicly released, only because the very genuine and earnest Hiroyasu Ishida goes full otaku mode in answering the questions. Including his admission he fell in love with voice actress Yu Aoi, the Japanese voice for Onee-san. He explains his favorite moments in the film and the challenges of directing his first feature-length project.

Author Tomihiko Morimi Interview (11:51 in HD) – The author discusses his opinion of the movie and how the story was very personal to him, having been with him in some form since childhood.

Ishida Past Works Promo Video (02:17 in HD) – A trailer of sorts for earlier short features by director Ishida.

“Good Night” Promo Video (02:08 in HD) – Hikaru Utada of Evangelion & Kingdom Hearts fame sings this song from the end credits, set to scenes from Penguin Highway.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Penguin Highway
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
4

Movie

Not quite Studio Ghibli, this surreal anime adventure has a fun sense of adventure and child-like discovery as seen through the eyes of a fourth grade boy.

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