The horror/fantasy film Tigers Are Not Afraid is being compared favorably to the early work of director Guillermo del Toro. Like del Toro, its writer/director, Issa López, hails from Mexico, but the similarities go much deeper. The American distributor of the Spanish language Tigers – streaming service Shudder – is eager to encourage the connection to the Academy Award winning director of exquisitely crafted fantasy films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. Their publicity material features a quote from del Toro about the movie: “An unsparing blend of fantasy and brutality, innocence and evil. Innovative, compassionate and mesmerizing.”
I wasn’t nearly as impressed as Mr. del Toro.
While López coaxed solid performances out of the five child actors at the core of her film, and it does have bits of special effects driven creepiness, Tigers ultimately suffers in comparison to del Toro’s work. It registers as a faded copy of a copy. The subject matter is important and timely, but the execution is muddled; the story lacks cohesion.
Like del Toro’s infusion of fantasy into the real-world horrors of Franco’s Spain in Pan’s Labyrinth and the Spanish Civil War in The Devil’s Backbone, Tigers Are Not Afraid conjures a fairy tale in the middle of the blood-soaked turf wars of Mexican drug cartels. The story focuses on Estrella, a young girl whose life changes when her mother disappears. In her search for answers and companionship, Estrella falls in with a group of four homeless boys, all of whom have been affected by the depravity of the drug cartels.
The opening scene of the movie establishes immediately both the brutality and the magical realism that López wants to explore. A regular day at school for Estrella – in which her teacher instructs the class to write their own fairy tales after a lesson on them – erupts into violence when a cartel member opens fire on campus. As the class crouches on the floor, waiting for the shooting to be over, Estrella’s teacher gives her three pieces of chalk, telling her they represent three wishes, just like in a fairy tale.
It’s a visceral, harrowing start to a movie that’s lean both in length – Tigers runs just over 80 minutes – and story. And it’s the story where the movie really suffers. It’s mostly just a string of scenes where this happens, then this happens, then this happens, that stems from one of the homeless boys, Shine, stealing a cell phone and a gun from a drunk cartel member, named Caco, early in the film. The plot machinations and leaps in logic that the story demands overwhelm its believability.
Basic plot points, like how did Caco figure out the next day who stole his cell phone, when he didn’t even realize it was missing the night before, and never saw Shine that night anyway, left me scratching my head.
The cell phone, or rather a damning piece of video on it, is wanted by the cartel that employs Caco, and they’ll do anything to get it back. A local politician known as El Chino, who has ties to the cartel, gets involved. But here, too, Tigers works against itself. The movie sets El Chino up as someone with far-reaching, almost total, power.
At one point, the group of kids try to turn the cell phone over to the police. They find a couple of cops in a patrol car, and walk up to it. When the cops realize that El Chino is involved, they quickly drive away from the kids, too scared and concerned with self-preservation to want to be seen even talking to the kids. That left me wondering, especially during the climax of the picture, that if El Chino has things so much on lock-down as far as his own power, to the point that the cops don’t dare get involved, why does he even care about the phone?
The fairy tale aspects of Tigers Are Not Afraid offer a more interesting angle to the movie, at least visually, if not thematically. In a (derivative) take on the classic tale The Monkey’s Paw, Estrella learns that there are consequences to having her wishes granted. The first involves her missing mother.
Estrella uses her first wish to bring her mother back to her. The supernatural entity that comes back is creepy – the most effective bit is something as simple as fingers reaching out of a cup – but the movie doesn’t seem to know to what end to use that creepiness. The ghost of Estrella’s mother is both supremely menacing, but also very helpful. She warns Estrella about potential danger, even as her haunting presence threatens to hurt the girl. At least that’s how the movie stages it.
The best bit of magical realism involves the eponymous tigers (though the original Spanish title, Vuelven, translates to They Come Back). The fairy tale that Estrella invents for her class assignment involves a prince who turned into a tiger. In voice-over, Estrella tells us that tigers rule their domain without fear. They are not afraid, which gives Estrella strength when facing danger.
Both the stuffed tiger toy that comes to life to help the children throughout the movie and the graffiti drawings of tigers that begin to move on their own are visually inventive; they create a tone poem quality akin to a movie like Beasts of the Southern Wild. They give the film a sense of wonder that the story lacks or that it fumbles.
Tigers Are Not Afraid should have tapped more into that magical visual aesthetic, instead of focusing on a muddled story that only makes sense if you’re caught up with it in the moment. It’s a movie that’s more realistic story elements begin to unravel once you apply any scrutiny to them.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- Tigers Are Not Afraid gets to the heart of the terror caused by Mexican drug cartels, but the story is muddled and the magical realism elements lack originality. It plays like a watered down version of Guillermo del Toro’s much more inventive, inspired films.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The movie opens with a school shooting. After the (most recent) spate of shootings here in America (El Paso and Ohio), it was easy to identify with those opening minutes. The causes might differ, but when bullets are flying, that doesn’t really matter.
- I mentioned the fingers coming out of the cup in the main review, but another really effective bit of imagery is a piano on fire. There’s nothing supernatural about it, but it lends a surreal ambiance to the scene.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- This was another screener link I watched in the home theater. Just me and the doggo sittin’ in the dark.