Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

16130549._sy475_

There was a time when I read practically every Stephen King book as they came out. Eventually I could not keep up and there were a few that I was not too fond of. In recent years, ‘ve tried to tackle the sprawling Dark Tower series. But the last King book I bought and read right after publication would go on to be one of my favorites, 11/23/63. When I heard that a sequel to the novel The Shining was coming out I downloaded it on the day of release. Unfortunately timing being what it was I did not get around to reading it until just before the release of the movie adaptation. And that is how things worked out and we come to Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep is a direct sequel of The shining and starts off shortly after the devastating events of The Shining. Now being a sequel to his novel rather than the Stanley Kubrick film, it continues with Dick Hallorann being very much alive as well as Danny and his mother, Wendy. A good third to a quarter on the book centers on the  continued repercussions of the trauma that young Danny experienced from the evil that lurked within the Overlook. He is still visited by the ghosts of the Overlook until Dick teaches him a trick to store these ghosts away in special mental lockboxes. This will come into importance later.

By the time we again meet Dan (as he now goes by), he is an adult, and also a complete mess. He is a drifting alcoholic and barely functional enough to hold down a steady job. While traveling on a bus, he gets an intuitive message in his head to get off at a small New Hampshire town. He finds a some peace and friends there as well. And also while there, he confronts the fact that he is an alcoholic and joins Alcoholics Anonymous.

Parallel to Dan’s adult story is that is Abra (like Abracadabra) Stone. Born in 2001, like Dan, she has the ability known as The Shining. But her ability just may be much more powerful than Ddan’s ever was.

We are also introduced to a group of road wanderers who traverse the country in a caravan of RVs and call themselves the True Knot. The True Knot may not look it, but they have a lot of resources at their command and they have lived a long time. They feed on those that have abilities like Dan and Abra. And they do not consider themselves human. They do have the ability to recruit others and make them like they are immortals who must feed on those with psychic abilities to survive. So…vampires.

Dan has achieved success with a few of years of sobriety and has taken a job at the town’s local hospice in the official capacity of an orderly. But everyone has come to call him Doctor Sleep because he has earned the reputation of helping those who are at the moment of death cross over peacefully, though no one really knows how. They just go with it. The precursor that seems to know when it is time for a patient to pass is the hospice’s cat Azzie (short for Azreel, an alternate spelling of Azrael, the Angel of Death) who will enter into the room of the patient which indicates to the staff they are about to pass.

In the meantime, a now older Abra has been able to reach out and occasionally leave messages with Dan, usually innocuous messages of “hello” or “good morning.”  That innocent communication is broken when Abra detects the painful psychic cries of a tortured boy who is a victim of the True Knot.

Everything begins to coalesce into a novel that is both epic and personal as the lives of everyone comes together as Abra, whose ability is so strong that she has drawn the attention of the True Knot’s leader, Rose the Hat. Dan finds himself reluctant at first to get involved but finds that he can’t ignore what they have been doing over the centuries as their victims are primarily children.

Stephen King not only follows up his classic horror novel effectively but also manages to build and in some ways surpass it. Where The Shining was a trailblazing novel by a young writer, Doctor Sleep is the extension from that seminal work by a writer who has matured, gone through more of life, and has learned to juggle multiple characters and narratives to come together into a story that is full of intensity. It does not have the weight or scale as other epics he’s written such as It or The Stand, but it feels like an epic in some ways. And like great epics, there is a gathering of companions that will help Dan and Abra in their fight, and there will be journey across one end of the country to another. And as most readers will suspect right away, there will be a final confrontation with the evil forces at the magnet for past evils, the burnt out remains of the Overlook Hotel.

Doctor Sleep succeeds as both a sequel and as a stand alone novel. It’s not necessary to have read The Shining, but it certainly helps, and I do recommend it. Dan Torrance emerges as one of King’s strongest and most memorable characters. The intricacies and the emotional struggles that Dan experiences as he comes to grips with alcohol addiction over time, feels authentic and may even have come from King’s own experiences with alcoholism. But it is Dan’s hospice persona which is the most emotionally powerful. Anyone who has ever had a loved one go through hospice care may relate to Dan’s ability and some scenes of people who are at their last few minutes of life. He uses his psychic ability to comfort them and ease their passing. In a way he sees this as atonement to the turbulent life he lead as a drunk. And as we go on a journey with Dan atoning for his past sins, we can relate to him all the more because they are common sins many of us may have felt hitting bottom.

Special mention of note goes to the audio edition as read by Will Patton. Will Patton has been the goto narrator for the Dave Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke and for Doctor Sleep, his talents are on full display as he manages New England accents effortlessly.

Doctor Sleep is more than a worthy successor to The Shining, it is a novel with depth and thrills. It may start just a little slow as we are brought up to speed on the intervening years since the events of The Shining but as an example of character build-up it succeeds very well and allows us to genuinely care for our main cast. It also features a villian with an array of cronies that are very memorable. The psychic vampire trope is not one that has been often explored. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons comes to mind as the closest to the creatures that King has created here. However you choose to consume the novel, whether by reading or listening, you should not be disappointed.

Final Score: 9/10

Re-read Review: Stephen King’s The Shining

It’s been close to 40 years since I first read Stephen King’s The Shining, and it was without question one of the books that made me fan of King but a voracious reader as well. I don’t often re-read books for the reason that there are so many books that I have yet to read the first time. Since I had the follow-up book, Doctor Sleep, in my to read list and in anticipation of the upcoming movie adaptation, I decided it would be a good idea to return to King’s classic novel and check back in to the Overlook Hotel. So what is there to discover in this re-read?

The Torrance family is about to have a major change in their lives. Jack Torrance is about to take a job at an isolated and secluded hotel in the Rocky Mountains. Wendy, his wife, and five-year-old son Danny get to spend the Winter in the hotel while it is closed for the season. Jack is supposed to be the caretaker of the property while the rest of the staff are gone.

It’s a cliche story idea now, but at the hands of King who is one of the greatest influences of modern horror, it is a story that remains gripping to this day. The Cabin in the woods and isolation is the trope. In this case, it’s the hotel at the top of the Rockies and isolation. So of course horror ensues.

Jack looks forward to the time away from distractions. He plans to use a lot of the isolated time to work on his play. And as a recovering alcoholic, he is glad that the hotel’s supply of alcohol is taken away during the off season that he and his family are staying at the Overlook.

Danny, is a young boy with a peculiar power, a “shine” as the hotel’s cook, Jack Halloran,  calls it, a psychic ability. That ability is often pre-cognitive but in a place as old as the Overlook with its dark past, it also let’s Danny see the ghosts of the hotel.

Wendy feels the most happy being able to spend time with her family in the big luxury hotel.

And then there is the Overlook Hotel itself. It is a magnet for malevolence and dead spirits — not the friendly kind, either. This is a case where an abode is a character onto itself. It has a dark history and an even darker personality to go with it. Yes, it is indeed haunted and the spirits that inhabit it are the suffering spirits who have all met their ends in dark and often violent means. They all seem to coalesce into a single entity.

Danny’s presence in the hotel is a draw to the Overlook’s malevolence and it seems to want the family to not just stay but to die there as well. It is able to reach into Jack’s mind to poison his thoughts and make him slowly lose his grip on sanity, especially in the vulnerable state of being a recovering alcoholic.

This is Stephen King’s third novel and even after all these years it still has the powerful ability to grip me and keep me on the edge of my seat in tense unease. During my re-read, it does show some signs of its age especially in the way of technology as antiquated telephone technology (how many these days remember feeding quarters into a payphone and getting operator assistance?).

The characters are still memorable and though it may seem like a slow burn at first, it is an intentional choice by King to get us to become familiar with the characters. And those who may have only watched the Stanley Kubrick directed adaptation may find some surprises. Jack Torrance is not as mad as he is portrayed by Jack Nicholson. Rather, he is a writer who has achieved some minor success yet is not as successful as he wants to be. He genuinely loves his son and even in the end fights against the darkness that consumes him.

King was going through his own struggles with alcoholism at the time he wrote The Shining and it comes across as deeply personal, which would help explain his vested interest in the integrity of his story and criticisms of Stanley Kubrick. Now What Kubrick did in his film was truly remarkable and is often scary, but it is definitely a Kubrick film than a King film. Yet, The Shining is also one of the greatest horror novels of all time and is well worth at least one read through.

FInal Score: 10/10

Review: Maleficient Mistress of Evil

Disney has made a cottage industry of remaking their animated films into live action films. The Lion King falls somewhere in-between with it’s photo-realistic computer animation. Almost all of them have been financially successful with varying degrees of critical reception. Two-thousand-fourteen’s Maleficient stands out to me as significant in its quality and unique take on the story of Sleeping Beauty it was based on. Instead of doing it as a remake, it is a retelling from the point of view of the animated film’s villain, Maleficient, and her motivations. It did well in the box office and it was definitely a fun scene chewing role for Angelina Jolie as the high cheek-boned villain.

Maleficient: Mistress of Evil is the direct sequel to its predecessor and continues its story with the now older Aurora (Elle Fanning), the legendary Sleeping Beauty and now Queen of the fairy inhabited Moors, is set to wed Prince Phillip(Harris Dickinson). Maleficient, as Aurora’s Fairy Godmother, is not too fond of the union but is willing to accept it for her sake, even meet with the Prince’s parents, the king and queen of Ullstead.

Though King John (Robert Lindsay) is hopeful that the union of Aurora and Phillip will bring peace between the two kingdoms of humans and fae, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), however, has no such hope or optimism. And in one of the most transparent first act plot turns of modern film, she orchestrates the cursing of the king so that Maleficient can be blamed for it. Driven from the palace and wounded in the process, Maleficient finds herself taken in by the Dark Fae, the fairy folk that she is descended from. Hated and hunted through history the remnants of their kind have retreated to a hidden island sanctuary. Wile there,there is a similar debate of whether to pursue peace or seek out war with the humans. And it is revealed that  Maleficient is especially special among them. Yes, Disney plays the Chosen One card.

Meanwhile, with the King suffering the curse of an unwaking sleep, and the mother of the bride missing, the wedding is going ahead as planned mainly because the plot requires it, I guess. But Queen Ingrith is plotting against the fairy folk who have all been invited to the wedding. Prince Phillip spends much of his time worrying over the sleeping form of his father while Aurora suspects that the Queen may not have the best interest of the fairy folk in mind. She uncovers the conspiracy pretty easily — very easily, like she walks into it.

This is a movie that really did not need to be made. Yes in the Disney cartoon, there is a wedding at the end and I guess it’s the reason for the plot of this sequel, but what could have been a direct to video one hour sequel in the old days is a full on high budget vehicle with large battles and a padded story that stretches it just long enough to make it a feature film.

What makes the film work, however, are stand-out performances by both Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer who stare great daggers at each other in the few scenes they have together. If their were more scenes of that, the movie would have benefited from it. It is also visually stunning at times with images of the Moors that pop on the large screen, especially on large formats like IMAX. Fans of costuming will love the work done in this film as Jolie sports some great outfits, even with basic black. Michelle Pfeiffer looks absolutely regal in her queenly regalia despite exuding absolute menace.

The plot is quite simple, easy to digest, pretty predictable, and yet it will keep you engaged enough only because the audience has already invested in the characters established in the last film. It most definitely winds up with an easy ending that ties everything up to easily. In other words, the ending is a very Disney ending.

Bearing in mind that this is still essentially a tale for a younger audience, there are some dark images and ideas that are portrayed in it. Warwick Davis plays Lickspittle, someone who works for the queen and is in charge of developing weapons to kill fairies. His research involves experiments on living fairies in fact. Now, the nature of fairy tales is dark and it may surprise some that there is such dark themes in the film but I take that as par for the course. Young children may find some of it unsettling. But young teens will probably be fine.

Despite its flaws, the visual style, and the fine performances do elevate the film into something that is definitely worth a watch, maybe at a matinee.

Final Score: 7.5/10

Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

42800305._sy475_

R.F. Kuang’s second book in her Poppy War Trilogy, The Dragon Republic, is not only as impressive as her first novel, The Poppy War, but is actually more mature in its writing style and confidence in storytelling that shows through the further world-building lore that is based heavily on Chinese history. There will be spoilers ahead for The Poppy War as this review will assume that you are already aware of the events, especially the end of that book.

After the events of The Poppy War, Rin and the surviving members of the Cike are on the run as the she is now enemies with the Nikan Empress who betrayed the nation to the invading Mugen Federation. She is also haunted by the death of Alton, the only other member of her Speerlie race. And even though she ended the war with the Federation by effectively committing genocide, chaos is left in its wake as soldiers without a nation to return to have resorted to wandering the country as bandits.

She soon finds herself joining with the warlord of the Dragon province who is also the father of her old school rival Nezha. It is the Dragon Warlord’s plan to lead a rebellion against the Empress and instituting a government based on democratic republic. As cynical as Rin is about this form of government she joins for the sake of vengeance against the traitorous Empress. Her best friend, Kitay,  from Sinegard Academy joins in the cause as well. Nezha, scarred and matured by the war is now a general under his father’s leadership.

New to the narrative is the nation of Hesperia. They come across as the equivalent of the Western European powers, equipped with firearms (something that the Nikari people have not seen) and airships, they are an imposing figure that allegedly supports the idea of a Dragon Republic. But they hold back on actual military support as they believe the Nikan people are not civilized enough yet. They also have their own agenda involving the spreading of their single deity religion and the examination of Rin’s shamanic power so that they can cure what they consider to be a manifestation of chaos.

The grim portrayal of Kuang’s world continues on an even broader scale as the scale of Rin’s observations on the war torn country around her expands to the multiple provinces. The effects of country that has just survives an invasion but now thrown into a civil war are all around her. There are mass exoduses and refugees fleeing from one place to another to escape conflict. On top of that is the lack of food for a population being overrun by conflict.

Rin still suffers from being more impulsive than she is smart — even though she is very smart. She is also still obsessed in following in the footsteps of Alton as a leader, even using his trident for which she is ill suited as a wielder. Her problems are even more compounded when her first face to face fight against the Empress results in her being cut off from her shaman powers.

Amid the cast of ambiguous characters with ambiguous motivations, Kitay stays the most true, and perhaps most innocent of characters. He also remains Rin’s truest friend. As in the previous novel, he anchors Rin as a moral compass and is the voice of reason. It doesn’t always work though. Fellow warlords and other generals tend to disregard some of his advice. Even Rin will give into her impulsive self than listen to reason much of the time.

Nezha’s character is much more fleshed out in The Dragon Republic as more is revealed about his family background and his motivations. His character arc is all the more intriguing when he and Rin come to know each other better and he also becomes a good friend to her. But he is also conflicted as a general and son of the Dragon Warlord who ultimately sees Rin as more of a tool of war and a bargaining chip that he throws to the Hesperians to study in exchange for their promised support. It becomes clear that the warlord is willing to sell her out if it is in his best interest.

The images of the after effects of war are haunting. There are many observations of starving peasants or bodies of civilian casualties littering field or floating in rivers. The Dragon province becomes a destination point for refugees fleeing starvation and band of former Mugen Federation soldiers now reduced to raiding defenseless villages. There is starvation and a definite lack of resources for these refugees which is made abundantly clear in the narrative.

Kuang’s structure and tone has definitely improved since the last book and events flow more naturally in the same three-part structure that was the structure of the first book. We also learn more about the shaman magic that Rin and others (including the Empress) have inherited. More is also revealed about the founding of the Nikan nation by the founding shamans. And with the introduction of the Hesperians, we get conflict not only in cultures but of religion as well.

Things coalesce in the third part of the book and it can seem to move quickly as groundwork that had been laid out throughout the narrative comes to a head as most of the novel’s plot threads come together with battles, betrayals and loss. As this is meant to be a trilogy, the novel ends at an appropriate point that does not feel like a cheap cliffhanger, but will still leave you with anticipation for the third and concluding book in the trilogy.

Ms. Kuang has grown quite a bit as a storyteller from her debut to her second novel and her ability to weave complex ideas has grown with her. He displays some great depictions of military tactics and action. She also manages to juggle a bigger cast and more complex issues such as politics and the plight of wartime refugees. Her main character, Rin has to go through a lot of development and emotional growth which she did not manage to handle as well in the first book. And the complexities of Rin’s character arc throughout the book is often filled with frustration, anger, and raw emotion as she has to examine what her place in the world is with or without her shamanic powers.

The Dragon Republic is more than a worthy follow-up to The Poppy War and I for one am in great anticipation of the final book because this is an amazing story that has been captivating from the beginning.

Final Score: 9/10

Review: Abominable is E.T. With Fur, But That’s OK

abominable-poster-3

Abominable by Dreamworks does not do anything revolutionary as far as American animated features are concerned. In fact it downright emulates a classic film of almost everyone’s youth, E.T. The Extraterrestrial. It’s not necessarily a bad thing since it still does does a good job of entertainment overall, despite its familiar plot. Some shortcomings come from a story that plays out as if there were scenes missing from the final cut that would have helped the narrative feel more fleshed out. But in the end, it is a cute entertaining film that is family friendly and treats their young characters as good kids trying to do the right thing.

Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennet)is a teenage girl living with her mother and grandmother in an unspecified Chinese city, though I suspect it is either Shanghai or a reasonable substitute. She spends much of her days doing odd jobs throughout the city for extra cash. All the while her family does not know this. All they know is that she disappears all day without telling them what she does. She has a little hideaway on her roof where she keeps mementos and the money that she has stowed away for what appears to be a plan to travel across China.

One night she discovers that an escaped Yeti is hiding on her roof and some bad guys are looking for him. You can tell they are bad guys because they all dress in black and their helicopters are black. She decides to hide him from their search lights and figures out he just wants to get home which happens to be Mount Everest.

She decides to initially get him on the next cargo ship that will travel up north in the Yangtze River.  But seeing that Everest, as she has named the creature, may not be able to survive on his own she makes the decision to make sure he gets all the way home. Along for the journey is her younger neighbor Peng (Albert Tsai) and his cousin, Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor). While Peng is the plucky and childlike adventurous type, Jin is more responsible but is also the typical teen concerned about his appearance and how many likes he gets on social media. The kids are pursued by the aforementioned team in black and are led by mega-rich guy Burnish (Eddie Izzard) who wants the Yeti as a prize in his collection of rare animals.

The majority of the film is a pursuit film that doubles as a gorgeous travelogue through the landscapes of China, including the giant Buddha of Leshan, and of course up to the very summit of the Himalayas. Accompanying the stunning visuals is an accomplished score by by Rupert Gregson Williams, which is highlighted by beautiful violin solos performed by Charlene Huang.

ABOMINABLE

The plot is very basic but it succeeds in its execution. The animation from Dreamworks and China’s Pearl Studios (technically a spin-off of Dreamworks Animation) is a solid presentation technically and artistically. The character designs are very expressive and are helped along with fine performances by the voice cast of mostly Asian and Asian Americans. The backgrounds of Chinese landscapes are without a doubt lush and a wonder to the eyes. My only issue is with the design of Everest which resembles more of a giant Muppet dog than human-like that lies mostly in our subconscious mythology.  He also has magic Yeti powers.

Every so often, Everest uses his powers of Yeti Ex Machina to get himself and the kids out of a jam and save them from not only the goons chasing them, but also starvation. He basically uses his powers when the plot calls for it, or if the writers don’t have a creative way to get out of the corner they are in. This is the film’s biggest negative and it comes across as a little lazy. Stuck on a cliff? Yeti Ex Machina!

For a movie that is as derivative it is, it still manages to lure you in with some great characters interactions, particularly between the kids. Yes, they snipe at each other and will bicker. But the bottom line, is that they still treat each other as family and have each other’s back. Yi’s family dynamic is tight and yet she feels distant from them since her father’s death. Yet her mother and grandmother are still there and have faith in her. Their relationship is as warm and inviting as any in the world. These are genuinely good kids trying to do the right thing no matter what. These characters will draw you in enough to care what happens to them in their adventure.

Now, this movie could have easily been told as an American tale starting off in an typical American city with a Bigfoot substituted for a Yeti. And honestly it could have worked just as well as far as overall plot. But with China as a setting it offers quite a unique perspective, not only of what the countryside and cities are like, but of it’s culture. As much as the film does a great job of just showing magnificent landscapes of China, it does not do so in a pandering way. At no time do we or should we feel that we are undergoing a geography lesson other than how far the Himalayas are. The cultural identities of the characters are not treated as some exotic alien culture but as a matter of fact. That is because the universal bonds of family and friendship cross cultural barriers.

Final Score: 7.75/10

Con Report: Silicon Valley Comic Con

This year’s Silicon Valley Comic Con has come and gone and as Silicon Valley’s largest pop-culture and comic book convention it has had ups and downs. As in the last two years prior, it took place in the San Jose Convention Center. Unlike mot comic cons across the nation, SVCC is unique in that they actively incorporate science as part of their programming. In a prominent area right beside the official con merchandise, NASA had an information and merchandise booth.

The con itself was well attended and for the first time it was held in the summer. Previous cons were held during the Spring, around spring break period. I have mixed feelings about this. According to the convention it was due to popular demand that the convention be held in the summertime. But there is a reason that summer is also called Con season and having it in mid August is right in the middle of other conventions as well. For myself I prefer the Spring as summers in Silicon Valley can be unpleasantly hot. Either way, it will be interesting to see the number of attendees this years compared to previous years.

As standard for comic cons, the were plenty of celebrity appearances and opportunities for autographs and photos with these celebrity guests. Silicon Valley Comic Con has had a history of doing reunions of casts. A few years back they re-united the cast of Back to the Future. A year after that it was a reunion of members of the cast of Star Trek the Next Generation. This year it was the re-union of the cast of the first three Terminator films and members of the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers American cast. Unfortunately, even though Arnold Schwarzenegger made an appearance on Sunday for autographs and photos, he was not on hand for the stage appearance with other cast members from the Terminator films such as Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong, Jeannette Goldstein, and Michael Biehn.

Also making an appearance for autographs and photos was Jason Mamoa (Aquaman, Dune) who has been building up a huge following over the years. Unfortunately he could not attend any stage appearance either.

Missing out on these two celebrities on stage was a disappointment but unfortunately it is the nature of the business when you have to work around the schedules of two busy individuals like Arnold and Jason. Too bad I was never a power rangers fan, I would have geeked out.

I did not cosplay this year. Part of that was the South Bay heat was not comfortable for me. And on top of that, some of my costumes no longer fit around the waist. They must have shrunk in storage or something. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Nevertheless, other attendees did cosplay and much of them looked really great.

 

 

 

I did however spend a good amount of time in the main exhibit hall with my shopping list of comics I was looking for and also connecting with acquaintances in Artists Alley. I did notice one thing about the programming track that was interesting. For a comic book convention, there seemed to be a lack of comic book centered programming. Maybe it’s a reflection of the industry that there are plenty of pop culture panels about things such as movies that were influenced by comics but sadly there were hardly any panels about comic books themselves. Maybe no one submitted panel ideas for comic book coverage, which is a shame.

One odd programming choice about panels I did not understand is the overlapping of panels. Half of the panels would start at the top of the hour while another half of the panels scheduled would start at the thirty-minute mark.

As with pretty much all comic conventions these days, the cultural divide is still evident in the total lack of anime and manga programming. Perhaps it is the fact that anime and manga is so huge now (manga sales are actually higher than comic books) that there is some unwritten understanding that they just may as well have their own convention. In fact, Crunchyroll Expo came two weeks after SVCC. .

Overall, the convention this year was slightly disappointing from previous years as not everything seemed to go as planned. I don’t know if there were any plans for either of the big name draws of Mamoa or Schwarzenegger to participate in stage panels but if there was no plans as such it probably should have been announced ahead of time.

Lines to enter into the convention were exceptionally long as the security company hired seemed confused about some of the simplest details such as what snacks could and could not be brought into the venue. People were made to pour out water bottles and and snacks confiscated, this included little bags of M&Ms and trail mix. All beverages including coffee had to be consumed before entering. There was apparently a special entrance for VIP ticket holders, unfortunately, hardly anyone knew about it, not even the ones at the door. And on a personal note, when I had thought that I had lost my car keys inside the convention and tried to get in just after the convention had ended, guards at the door were in total confusion as to what to do.

But the con experience, despite some nitpicks, has been steadily becoming the major pop-culture convention for Northern California. But because it actively cultivates a balance of science and technology with all things we love about nerd culture. Without movie and television studios trying to dominate the convention with major announcements or trailers, this is definitely more friendly towards fans just having fun together.

“Penguin Highway” is a Surreal Anime Delight

PenginH

What would you do if one day dozens of Adelie penguins started showing up in your little suburban town for no apparent reason? This becomes the trigger event for a surreal, yet beautiful, coming of age anime from anime film Penguin Highway that is sure to bring some delight to a dull day. And if, like me, you happen to have a love of penguins, you will be in for a joyful animated treat.

Aoyama is an overachieving self admitted genius. He is also in the fourth grade. Yet he keeps extensive notebooks on daily observations in life as his goal is to become a Nobel Prize winning scientist. He has a natural scientific curiosity about everything which is encouraged and cultivated by his parents. But frankly, he’s not as much of a genius as he thinks he is as he is a little clueless in may other areas as will be shown in the film. But he is definitely above average in the class. Fellow classmate, Hamamoto is a girl that he admits just might be smarter than him. His best friend, Uchida serves as the devoted sidekick who tends to states obvious facts that everyone misses such as who has a crush on who.

Aoyama has a fascination with the local dental assistant who is never really named but either addressed as Miss, or Onee-san, the honorific for big sister. We normal people would call it a crush, but he has no clue about that aspect of life. He also has an odd curiosity and fascination with her breasts. Though charming initially, it does become a little creepy as the film continues. Aoyama may be precocious but he is appropriately awkward in the world and sometimes his curiosity gets the better of him as he tries to see how long a person can go without eating.

One seemingly normal school day, penguins are spotted by many people in town and Aoyama decides it is his mission to investigate the phenomenon and solve the mystery of their sudden appearance. He discovers that they are Adelie penguins which are native to the Antarctic and not escaped zoo animals. A Japanese suburb is definitely not their natural habitat. Aoyama discovers that the ones that were rounded up by the local authorities suddenly vanished while in the truck carrying them.The mystery deepens and the game is afoot as Aoyama feels he has to get to the bottom of this enigma. And in true young kids fashion, the film’s Scooby gang is soon on the case.

He is of course teamed up with his classmates and Onee-san in his effort to solve the mystery of the penguins. By using observation and deduction he is determined to get to the truth. This truth will end up leading Aoyama and company on a road filled with surreal penguin appearances and disappearances,  inter-dimensional bubbles, and of course a little young romance.

Penguin Highway is the debut feature film of Hiroyau Ishida, but you would not think so as he deftly handles the story elements of the children with quite a bit of finesse  and never makes them seem annoying in their rambunctiousness as so often happens anime. Based on the novel of the same name by Tomiko Morimi, each of the characters are given their main moments and even the bully character is not really all that bad.

The final act comes together in a literal flood of adorable penguins and a dreamlike town that bends reality like a drug induced vision that is cute, funny and mind bending. Don’t let the fact that I absolutely love penguins and animes that feature them are especially endearing. This is a film that is heartwarming and quint and tells a story that can only be done in animation. On top of that it celebrates intellectual curiosity and the belief in science and the scientific method of evidence gathering.

But the final act may not make a lot of sense to many people and may leave some with more questions than answers while the final credits roll. But perhaps that is a good thing and maybe we’ll have to keep thinking about it later. Of course this is also all the more reason to watch it again.

At its heart, Penguin Highway is as simple a coming of age story as they come — except there’s space-time bending and penguins. It is uplifting and the visuals are absolutely stunning. If you happen to catch it dubbed the young characters are actually played by age appropriate actors. Although in some scenes, their young inexperience in voice work is evident.

I first saw Penguin Highway as an early screening during 2018’s Crunchyroll Expo and was deeply impressed. When it received a theatrical release, it was fairly limited but now it is available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo at all major retailers by Eleven Arts Entertainment and Shout Factory. If you are interested in a Collector’s Edition, it is available to order from RightStuf.com which is probably the largest online retailer of anime and Manga in the world if not America.

Final Score: 9/10