Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Free! -Take Your Marks-
With an unforgettable year behind them and a promising year ahead, the Iwatobi and Samezuka swim teams dive into their plans for the future as graduation forces them all to part ways. Makoto and Haruka scout out the perfect apartment for their college semester in Tokyo, while Sousuke and Rin try to relax at a hot springs resort courtesy of Nitori and Momo's hospitality. This leaves Gou, Nagisa, and Rei to create the perfect pitch for recruiting new club members, with a little help from all their other swimming buddies. But unexpected drama arises when Momo challenges Rin to a high-stakes race right before he's set to leave for Australia! Even in the twilight between one year of competition and the next, there's nothing but adventure on the horizon for the boys who swim free!
You know that sequence of heartwarming, lightly comedic images that flashed by during the credits of Free! Eternal Summer's final episode? We saw Makoto and Haruka studying together in college, Nagisa and Rei coaching new members on the swim team while Nitori stepped up as captain for Samezuka, and we saw Rin pursuing his Olympic-sized dreams in Australia as Sousuke stared longingly at the ocean. Remember the high of that perfect finish to a triumphant season?
Okay. This entire movie is composed of innocuous stuff that could have happened in the tiny window after Iwatobi's 6th place win at Nationals, but before any of that stuff you see in the end credits. It wrings 100 minutes out of that couple months the boys spend apartment hunting, vacationing, and reminiscing under the summer sky, without so much as dipping a toe into the next phase of life that fans have been spoiling to see for almost four years now. I gotta admit, that kinda took the wind out of my sails given the precedent of expectations I have for these two-recaps-and-an-original-ending anime trilogies. I was definitely expecting more story.
So it's best not to go into -Take Your Marks- expecting an exuberant theatrical adventure. This isn't the next heat in the qualifiers of life for our lovable soggy-bottom boys. Instead, prepare yourself for four pleasant OVAs stitched together that bid a final fond farewell to the status quo of Eternal Summer, sprinkled with a couple teasing cameos from the High Speed! -Free! Starting Days- cast that suggests they'll all play a bigger part in this summer's third season. (It was interesting to see the gulf in audience reaction to these characters at a screening, since that prequel film has not been released in English yet.)
While none of these four short stories shoot for the level of hyperbolic silliness delivered by the Samezuka School Festival OVA (you know, the one with the maid cafe and water-gun battle), their tone does remain firmly in sitcom-style nonsense and wistful sentimentality rather than any significant drama. Sure, there's a definite sense of escalation between "Haru and Makoto Discuss Housing Options with Kisumi" to the wholly unexpected "Momo Accidentally Challenges Rin to a Race For Gou's Virginity." (Okay, I may be exaggerating that one, but only slightly. This plot's true purpose is probably to get more swimming into the movie, of which there is very little.) But any potential tension that crops up is swiftly defused, and the payoff for most buildups is a pause for applause at a surprise cameo. This "movie" never approaches the heights of theatricality and catharsis delivered by the climaxes of either TV season, seeming perfectly content to play in the shallow end of the pool.
Once you get past those lowered expectations, however, there's still plenty to enjoy about -Take Your Marks!-. The focus on goofy humor works out well given the change in directors, as this film's comic timing succeeds far more than it did in the TV series. (Momo fans will be pleased with how much the movie milks that sea otter.) The movie's undeniable highlight comes in its third vignette, as the guys work to produce a short film inspired by the first season's Arabian-themed credits sequence, putting them outside their comfort zones and giving Amakata-sensei a memorable chance to shine. The round-robin series of misunderstandings that drives the fourth vignette also turns a solid laugh riot out of a potentially lame setup, just in time to conclude on one last goodbye party for all our favorite characters. -Take Your Marks!- is easily at its best when it's angling for your funny bone.
The film suffers more in its first two segments, which aim for a more lackadaisical slice-of-life atmosphere than the cuddly comedy of its second half. This might have worked better in series director Hiroko Utsumi's hands, but her "refreshingly sweaty" aesthetic that thrives on melodrama and cheeky voyeurism is largely absent from this movie. Haru and Makoto's tour of Tokyo is uncomfortably quiet and languid without the energy of their more emotionally unguarded teammates, leaving us with a low-stakes vignette that builds blandly to a weak payoff. There's more welcome comedy in the second vignette, but the story mostly feels like a missed opportunity once the Samezuka boys get to the hot spring and sit around stiffly like Ken dolls in the sink. This isn't due to a downgrade in animation; Free! looks as good as ever in terms of artistry, but the storyboarding choices and shot framing are noticeably different. The closeups of rolling deltoids and sinewy calves dripping in the sun that fans have come to expect from Free! are just kinda missing from this movie in general, but especially during the hot springs trip. It's an unfortunate reminder that staff changes can make a big difference in a show's impact, and fans should cross their fingers that season three hews closer to the appeal of the first two seasons than this film.
-Take Your Marks!- is perfectly pleasant to sit through in a sensible chuckle kind of way, and diehard fans are bound to get some joy out of seeing their favorite fishy fellers do anything after such a long wait, but this is still the kind of experience you might struggle to remember by the next morning. If this barely-a-film's main goal was to get us primed to welcome the show back in summer, then it's worth watching just to get your Free! hype circuits churning back to life again. But fans should definitely hope the third season aims for greater heights than this transient trifle.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Enjoyable comedy with great timing, works well as a heartwarming primer to ease fans gently into season three
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