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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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 close-up 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 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.
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?
Why do you think there's so much talk of breasts in the movie? Is that appropriate for the target audience?
- In theaters: April 5, 2019
- On DVD or streaming: August 6, 2019
- Cast: Kana Kita, Yû Aoi, Miki Fukui
- Director: Hiroyasu Ishida
- Studio: Eleven Arts
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Character Strengths: Curiosity, Teamwork
- Run time: 118 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Seal
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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