I saw Penguin Highway in theaters during the New York Int’l Children’s Film Festival. I was sitting next to two women in their late 20s who were discussing where to get artisanal haircuts. If that does not paint a picture of who was sitting next to me I’m not exactly sure what will. After the movie ended one of them commented that the story distinctly had the feel of what she expected from one of those “Japanimation cartoons”. Before I say anything else I do have to address the elephant in the room: I’m just as shocked as you that anyone still says “Japanimation cartoons” let alone two young women. But it does give you a sense of how Penguin Highway feels very different when your baseline for anime is just seeing Ghibli movies and Adult Swim shows. That said I would argue that Penguin Highway falls into that realm of your stereotypical “anime” either.
That is a fairly weighty statement to make so I think it requires some justification beyond “Penguin Highway gets lots of critical praise so it has to be different.” Let us see if I can back up my claim.