Something is piping small, cat-size penguins into the middle of a small-town field in “Penguin Highway,” an irresistibly out-there mystery that plays like a cross between “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Stranger Things,” if either of those influences’ sense of horror were replaced with wonder, and their weird happenings took place in broad daylight rather than more atmospheric darkness. Here, while most of the locals scratch their head in puzzlement, a book-smart kid named Aoyama (Kana Kita) has half a dozen hypotheses — perhaps they’re abandoned pets, or maybe they’re crows “that have undergone a sudden mutation to become fat” — and takes it upon himself to investigate.
An impressive first feature from director Hiroyasu Ishida (whose 2011 graduation short, “Rain Town,” is worth looking up online), “Penguin Highway” sticks to the big-eyed, fine-limbed aesthetic seen in most adult-targeted anime but fleshes out the characters at the screenplay level, such that the entire enterprise stands apart — it’s a notch better even than last year’s Oscar-nominated “Mirai.” That the Academy recognized “Mirai,” making it the first non-Studio Ghibli anime to be nominated, suggests that Americans are slowly embracing the artistic merits of a medium being produced at such a volume that many don’t know where to begin trying to keep up with all that cartoon content.
To simplify matters: If you see just one anime feature this year, it ought to be “Penguin Highway.” It’s not that the style or story is mind-blowingly original, the way the best Miyazaki movies are; rather, this well-written cartoon playfully complements the kind of storytelling that Westerners are already enjoying via American-made live-action series, while incorporating lots of delightfully Japan-specific details along the way — as when Aoyama stands up to a trio of bullies, who punish him by tying him to one of those middle-of-nowhere vending machines in Japan that sell beverages (well, this one dispenses cans of soda that inexplicably transform into penguins when tossed through the air).
Aoyama craves explanations. A studious fourth grader and regular Encyclopedia Brown, he buries himself in books, obsesses about boobs (a detail that, while consistent with the preoccupations of most teenage boys no matter the country, translates somewhat awkwardly across cultures here), and daydreams about how amazing he’ll be when he grows up. “I’m sure that lots of girls will want to marry me,” he muses as the film opens. Aoyama is refreshingly self-confident for someone his age, giving him the independence to investigate those strange penguins (whose wobbly way of walking and tendency to trip go unnoticed by most of the human characters) without worrying too much about what adults or those aforementioned bullies think.
Aoyama is far more concerned with impressing the attractive young woman (voiced by Yuu Aoi) who works as an assistant in his dentist’s office, and who is taken enough with the kid’s self-confidence that she agrees to meet him after work. Over a game of chess at an out-of-the-way coffee shop, he can’t seem to take his eyes off her breasts, which she humors as only female characters that spring from the male imagination can. Aoyama may not have conjured this dream girl out of thin air, the way the kids in “Weird Science” did Kelly LeBrock back in the day, but she seems almost unreasonably open to his puppy-dog crush.
And yet, there is something special about Aoyama, who takes a proactive interest in the penguin mystery, following their trail to a secluded spot where a giant silvery orb, which he dubs “the Ocean,” levitates in an abandoned field. Together with a couple of his school friends and the dental assistant (who, it soon becomes clear, is far from a normal woman), he goes about trying to apply deductive reasoning and logic to this otherworldly phenomenon — which is positively adorable to observe, considering there’s nothing conventionally scientific about what we’re dealing with here at all.
Things don’t always make sense, but “Penguin Highway” presents this cute puzzle in such a way that we can never be sure where the narrative will take us next. Steering the creative team at up-and-coming Japanese animation outfit Studio Colorido, director Ishida uses digital techniques to suggest a hand-tooled aesthetic (the field and forest backgrounds are especially vivid) while adding sunbeams and mottled shadows to give things a luminous, multidimensional feel. Only the Ocean and a few other visual effects — including the menacing Jabberwocky creatures from another dimension — are clearly computer-generated, but even then, “Penguin Highway” joins that class of well-made anime that’s destined to hold up better than comparable live-action features while offering a satisfying alternative to state-of-the-art, American-made animation.