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The Time Guardians (2020) Review

Shout Factory continues its recent string of Russian genre films with The Time Guardians (Ключ времени). The story of eight year old Ksyusha (Kseniya Alexeeva) who was an orphan until she was adopted by Andrei (Pavel Trubiner, Hotel Russia) and his wife Olga (Marina Kazankova). She’s an artist, and he’s a writer, currently working on a novel set in an alternate version of Saint Petersburg, (the one in Russia, not Florida).

But all is not happily ever after. The other kids at school torment her because she’s adopted. The head of the orphanage she was adopted from is Andrei’s ex Irena (Lyubov Tolkalina, Zhukov), and she’s willing to do anything to get him back, even if it means destroying his marriage and Ksyusha’s chance at happiness.

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Director Alexey Telnov (Archipelago) and co-writers Alexey Teplygin and Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina (Dance of the Eagle) give The Time Guardians an opening act that leaves little doubt where the story will go. And indeed after a car crash Ksyusha finds herself in the Dark City of her father’s novel, where it falls on her to rewind the city’s clock in order to restart time, save the city and allow her to return to her home.

Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina has said that The Time Guardians was the Russian response to Harry Potter. If that was their intent, they failed, and rather badly. It doesn’t have the incredible array of magical creatures, lavish special effects or the epic scope of those films. With its smaller scale, it feels more like a fairy tale in comparison. One more in the style of the original Brothers Grimm than Disney.

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This means that it’s also a lot darker in tone than the Harry Potter franchise. Even Paramon (Artyom Tkachenko, Gogol, The Blackout) who’s our heroine’s helper in the Dark City is an alcoholic who seems to be as quick to insult her as he is to help her. One of the residents who helps them go as far as asking him if he’s planning to steal her soul.

Unfortunately, The Time Guardians never manage to make the most of that darkness and fails to build a sense of danger or suspense. Some scenes, like the one in which The Witch (Lyubov Tolkalina in a dual role) sends her zombie-like ghouls after Ksyusha and Paramon may scare younger kids, but most will find the film as a whole on the dull side.

A large part of the problem may lie with the director. The Time Guardians is Telnov’s only narrative film, all of his other credits are for documentaries. And I don’t think I’m telling you something you don’t already know when I say the requirements for the two are very different. Some dramas may benefit from a documentarian’s matter of fact approach, but a fantasy needs something entirely different.

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Some of the cinematography in the alternate St. Petersburg is quite striking, but the rather poor effects keep undercutting it and many of the film’s action scenes. It’s hard to feel worried when the characters are obviously “falling” in front of a green screen, or appreciate the look of the city when the fiery sky is obviously CGI.

In the end, The Time Guardians is a slow and rather dull film that lacks thrills and weighs itself down with too many heavy real world issues like trust, abandonment and infidelity. It might amuse undemanding youngsters, but just about everyone else will be looking at their watches.

The Time Guardians is currently available in a dubbed version from Shout Factory for purchase on Digital platforms. It will be available on DVD in both subtitled and dubbed versions on February 22nd. You can check their website for more information.

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