Ethereal and lovely, this movie seems for all the world like a Studio Ghibili creation, with its precocious kids, mysteries connected with the natural world, and leisurely plotting. The action in Penguin Highway might be a little too leisurely for some young viewers, in fact, and some kids may get bored watching Aoyama and his friends slowly traipsing through the same patch of forest repeatedly -- or playing real-time games of chess. And some of the content is on the mature side for the youngest viewers: Aoyama gives several soliloquies about breasts and his great fascination with them, and at one point he convinces the class bully that he has a tooth infection that will force the dentist to pull all his teeth painfully and might wind up killing him. If sensitive younger viewers don't start crying when they see a close-up of a toothy mouth growing brown mushrooms, a scene with a group of weeping young children mourning around a casket may well do it.
Nonetheless, those who are patient and mature enough to appreciate this gorgeous, dreamy film will be enchanted by visuals of sun-dappled fields dotted with adorable penguins and will be taken in by Aoyama's curiously adult determination to solve the twin mysteries of the misplaced penguins and the lady who seems connected to them. Aoyama is a bit full of himself -- "I am smart, and I study very hard; I'm sure I'll be someone great in the future," he tells viewers in the film's opening -- but he's sincere and hardworking, too, endlessly taking notes on the penguin situation and stopping frequently to consider the lessons that his dad has given him on problem-solving. In the end, the penguins have more to do with magic than science, and this movie does, too -- it has something truly special for anime lovers who've aged out of Studio Ghibli's sweeter fare, and it's a gorgeous choice for whole-family watching with tweens and teens.