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Penguin Highway

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Penguin Highway Movie Poster Image
Magic, mystery, some mature content in lovely anime.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 118 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Themes of curiosity and teamwork are clear from the way that characters work together to find answers to a mystery. Family members have close relationships; friends and family members are supportive. Children are taken seriously, and their intelligence and hard work is respected. Messages about love are somewhat mixed -- Aoyama talks frequently about and stares at a woman's breasts, but he also tells a classmate that picking on a girl is a terrible (and illogical) way to show he likes her.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Aoyama affirms proudly that he's sure his hard work and intelligence will make him "someone great" some day. He works equally hard on his character, apologizing when he makes mistakes and urging his friends "Let's do better next time." Female characters have strong (though not main) roles and are presented as being courageous, intelligent, and powerful. A bully is unkind to other kids, menacing them physically, but he's redeemed in the end and is crucial to the story's resolution. He's also mocked for crying; it's implied that crying is unmasculine and immature. 

Violence

Some fairly intense moments. In one scene, Aoyama falsely tells another character that he has a disease that will kill him if he doesn't get his teeth painfully pulled. Viewers see a dental tool looming threateningly and fungus growing on teeth, then a casket at a funeral, with young mourners crying. In a running gag, boys win fights by grabbing their foes' testicles. Alligator-like monsters eat penguins in brief scenes; in another scene, a penguin is hit by a car (he bounces off, unhurt). A young girl cries as she realizes her mom will someday die. A bully menaces smaller kids by swinging them around by the arms, pushing them, and punching them; he also ties a character to a vending machine and pees on some important papers. 

Sex

Aoyama is confident that, in the future, "lots of girls will want to marry me," but he "already has someone in mind." Several shots focus on a woman's breasts (covered by clothing), and she says "you're looking at my boobs" to Aoyama. He also talks at length about breasts and how he thinks about them when he's upset and they make him feel calm. When bullies steal a boy's swimming suit in a pool, there's a brief glimpse of a boy's nude backside. A boy is instructed that picking on a girl is an "illogical" way to show he likes her. 

Language

No cursing, but insults include "little kids," "baby," "silly brat," "liar." Characters also say "darn it" and "it sucks," and the word "boobs" is said many times. 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Penguin Highway is a lovely, magical anime movie about mysterious penguin-related happenings in a quiet Japanese town. It's subtitled in English and voiced in Japanese; a dubbed version is also available. Some scenes have scary imagery, such as when a boy is told he has a dental disease that will cause him to get his teeth painfully pulled out in the short run -- and may kill him in the long run. Viewers see a closeup of a mouth with threatening dental tools, fungus growing on teeth, and a casket with young children crying around it. In another scene, a little girl learns her mother will die someday and cries before being comforted. In a running gag, boys win fights by grabbing their foes' testicles. A penguin is hit by a car (but bounces off unhurt). A bully menaces younger kids by pushing and hitting; in one scene, the bully also pees on important papers. A boy is preoccupied with a woman's breasts; he stares at them, calls them "boobs," and talks about their size (the woman in question seems to find this amusing). There's a brief glimpse of a bare backside when a character's swimsuit is snatched away by bullies. A boy likes a girl and picks on her; he's told this is an illogical way to show his affection. The same boy is mocked for crying, which is suggested to be immature and unmasculine. There's no drinking, drugs, smoking, or cursing, but characters do insult each other: "baby," "silly brat," "liar." Characters also say "darn it," and "it sucks." But strong themes of curiosity and teamwork run through the movie, and female characters are given agency and personality. A young boy works hard at his studies and his character; he often evaluates his own behavior and resolves to do a better job next time.

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What's the story?

When fourth-grade budding scientist Aoyama (Kana Kita) notices out-of-place penguins invading his quiet Japanese town, he launches an investigation of the strange phenomenon. He soon reasons that his town has become part of the birds' PENGUIN HIGHWAY on the way to the Antarctic. He looks into the mystery with his helpful classmates Uchida (Rie Kugimiya) and Hamamoto (Megumi Han), but things really get strange when Aoyama meets a lady (Yû Aoi) who works at his dentist's office and has otherworldly powers that are connected to the penguins and to the mystical orb the friends discover in the forest. Can the young investigators find the source of the mystery before their town is overtaken by strange happenings? 

Is it any good?

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 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.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about whether movies like Penguin Highway are more accessible when dubbed in English or if they're better in their native Japanese, with English subtitles. Which do you prefer, and why? Is it hard for you to follow the action via subtitles? Would it be difficult for a new or less confident reader? 

  • Japanese anime movies are known for offering alternatives to mainstream Hollywood movies. What sets them apart from animated movies made in the United States? Why is Japanese animation appealing to viewers? 

  • How do the characters in Penguin Highway demonstrate curiosity and teamwork? Why are these important character strengths?

  • Why do you think there's so much talk of breasts in the movie? Is that appropriate for the target audience?

Movie details

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