It’s relatively easy to forget that, originally, fairy tales had a deeper function than just being pleasant fantasy. The Disney-fication of the genre has made the popular conception of the fairy tale as being a story that’s pretty, inviting and frivolous. Yet the origin of fairy tales, including and especially the works of the Brothers Grimm, are closer to the empathetic catharsis of the horror genre rather than just being a placating form of storytelling. Even the majority of the classic Disney adaptations of these tales understood this, with each containing at least one if not multiple scenes of nightmarish imagery coupled with thematically disturbing material. Fortunately, there are storytellers who keep this classical tradition of fairy tales alive, telling stories about children and how they deal with the horrific real world they live in, helping any who experience the story (including adults) with a way to process and relate to trauma. Issa López’s third directorial feature, Tigers Are Not Afraid, is just such a fairy tale, a magical realism film that tells a fantastical story with a disturbingly real-world subtext. While the fantasy and horror elements of the film are particularly striking, the movie as a whole feels oddly distancing, its lack of specificity harming more than helping.
Tigers Are Not Afraid takes a little while to get going, cutting back and forth between opening scenes that at first seem to be two different realities — a young student, Estrella (Paola Lara), begins to write an original fairy tale as prompted by her teacher, and that tale at first appears to be about a young boy, Shine (Juan Ramón López), who is stalking a member of a drug gang in order to steal his gun and smartphone. After gunshots ring out at Estrella’s school, she finds that classes are cancelled and a dead body lies bleeding on the ground outside. She walks home, finds her mother mysteriously missing and meets Shine, who is not a figment of her imagination but is instead a real boy living on the streets with his own rag tag gang. Once Estrella proves her worthiness to join Shine’s gang of homeless survivors, the kids both pursue and are pursued by the drug gang, who need the smartphone back due to an incriminating video of a gang member killing a captive. The kids’ plight seems dire, yet there’s a creepy sense of hope thanks to the creatures and visions Estrella sees, including among them several ghosts of the gang’s victims, who whisper to Estrella that they seek revenge.
That simple storyline is part of what gives Tigers Are Not Afraid both its strength and its weakness. While it’s an excellent framework to hang a lot of fantasy and horror elements on, it’s also too thin and underdeveloped to be as engaging as it could be as a story on its own. The ensemble of kids are intriguing and entertaining to spend time with, but, with the exception of Estrella, they’re pretty much surface level characters. Even the villains are vaguely drawn, generic gang members who, despite having a corrupt political candidate in charge of them, never register beyond being average Bad Dudes. Tigers Are Not Afraid is clearly influenced by a variety of films, but it most closely evokes the work of Guillermo del Toro, given the Mexican setting and presence of a supernatural Greek chorus element. Unlike that filmmaker’s work, however, there isn’t a depth or specificity of character in Tigers Are Not Afraid, which hurts the film overall. There’s a death at the end of the second act that López is clearly hoping has a good deal of emotional impact, but thanks to the lack of time viewers have with this character, it feels too cloying and hollow. Diffusing that death — as well as some others in the film — is the concept of Estrella seeing the victim’s ghosts almost immediately after their demise. This means that, effectively, the characters remain on screen after their deaths, and are portrayed as themselves rather than as ghoulish wraiths. Compounding matters is the fact that the film isn’t particularly grounded — it doesn’t necessarily want to be, for one thing, as it’s filled with fantasy imagery and magical realist contrivances (such as the smartphone central to the story, which has a full battery over the several days the film takes place). Yet while Tigers Are Not Afraid is never grounded in a major way (it’s never revealed exactly where the movie is set, for example), López and cinematographer Juan Jose Saravia shoot the entire movie in a gritty, handheld manner, a technique that recalls cinema’s most egregious use of the “shaky cam” aesthetic. Rather than feeling immediate and realistic, Tigers Are Not Afraid only seems more distancing as a result, another stylistic tic on top of a large pile that threatens to topple the entire thing.
Fortunately, the rest of those stylistic elements are so strong that they make López’s film a memorable watch. What Tigers Are Not Afraid doesn’t contain in terms of deep characters and real-world specificity, it makes up for with its supernatural elements, allowing its allegory to resonate. The film is told compellingly from the kids’ perspective, making it easy to see how something like three pieces of chalk can become three magical wishes that Estrella can use in such a brutal, bleak, and uncaring world. López creates some indelible imagery, from a corpse’s blood following Estrella wherever she goes to childlike graffiti that comes to life to creepy ghosts, building a visually rich supernatural world around the film’s slum-filled reality. The American title of the movie speaks to the internal resilience of these children to get through their many hardships, while the original title of the movie helps bring out some of the emotional resonance it’s missing elsewhere. That title — Vuelven — translates to “they come back,” which is not only a spooky name for the movie, but references the desaparecidos; people who, in Tigers Are Not Afraid, are victims of the drug gang. In reality, it references the Mexican epidemic of missing people that may or may not have to do with gangs, but carries a tragic and disturbing connotation no matter what. López presents a world in which those victims can find retribution, as well as one where the children they leave behind have the strength and ability to find their way through hardship and vanquish the evil surrounding them. Tigers Are Not Afraid may not be as rich as it could be, but it’s still a bedtime story that resonates, and one that keeps the classical tradition of the fairy tale alive.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.