Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are the reason people today have even heard of, much less instantly recognize the tropes of many fairy tales. The rise of Romanticism revitalized interest in the traditional folktales of the region, so the German brothers devised a methodical way to track, catalog, and record these oral stories. The first volume was released in 1812 and the second in 1815. They would go on to make seven versions overall, having revised and expanded their initial compilation to well over 200 stories.
These original folk tales were meant to scare their audience, not all of them aimed at children, and their darker themes remain influential today. The beloved 1987 TV adaptation of Beauty And The Beast, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman, is for adults. Of course, a more modern take on the same idea, is Once Upon A Time. Books reimagining the familiar characters as warriors or in a sultry manner have become commonplace, thanks to authors like Robin McKinley. Heck, there’s a long-running comic series about Red Riding Hood, Alice In Wonderland, and other fantasy characters being sexy and killing lots of people. Sure, Joe Taylor’s Grimm Fairy Tales comic isn’t very good, but that is beside the point.
In cinematic terms, there have been a lot of fairy tales filmed over the 130 years of movie history. Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs being the most notable early example. Nowadays, whether it is a star-studded, big studio affair, such as the misguided Red Riding Hood, or the low budget wonders of Rene Perez’s Snow Queen, there continue to be folktales that retain their original dark edges in the film world.
It does seem, though, that the most successful movies in this arena are not direct adaptations but rather incorporate the themes and iconography to fashion a wholly original story. Running Scared, the Wayne Kramer directed, Paul Walker starring masterpiece is one of the most intense, and most underrated, action movies ever. It is a twisted, disturbed trip down the grittier side of the rabbit hole. In that same vein comes Tigers Are Not Afraid, a dark fairy tale that does not shy away from the grotesque and disturbing.
“Several kidnappings are happening all over a small, unnamed Mexican city by the cartel…refuse to cooperate, the victims are killed with a vengeance.”
Several kidnappings are happening all over a small, unnamed Mexican city by the cartel Los Huascas. If they refuse to cooperate, the victims are killed with a vengeance. It is a bit of an open secret as to who is doing this, but there is only circumstantial evidence. Just before Estrella’s (Paola Lara) school closes, due to the violence and kidnapping, her teacher gives her three wishes. Her first wish is that her mom, who recently went missing, presumed dead, comes back to her. She catches Shine (Juan Ramón Lopez) hauling off things from her house upon returning home, including her mom’s prized possession, a bird bracelet. She follows Shine back to his makeshift encampment, where he lives with fellow orphaned kids such as Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas) and the young mute Murro (Nery Arredondo). After supposedly offing a mid-level drug pusher/ gang member, they allow Estrella to stay. Now is the time to get revenge and they set about tracking down El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), the kingpin of the cartel. The closer they get to him, the more humanity they have to shed to keep going. Will they come out the other side as twisted as Huascas, or will this spree save the soul of the city?
Writer-director Issa López’s career started in 1994 with a few comedic shorts. She has written quite steadily since then, with a number of TV shows and movies, but has only directed intermittently. Her comedy background is a bit surprising, as the biggest flaw in Tigers Are Not Afraid is the stilted attempt at levity. One of the urchins keeps confusing the words virtual and ritual, and it is more perplexing than anything else. A few other humorous moments such as Caco’s fixation on how Shine got his gun also hit the wrong nerve.
These odd lines stand out because the rest of the movie is so impressively mounted. López balances the dramatic arcs for the characters, the grimy nature of the world they inhabit, and the dark supernatural happenings quite impressively. The ominous fairy tale aspects are utilized quite well, never overtaking the plot threads but also never so sparse that they feel like an afterthought. Estrella does get her first wish, but her mom comes back in a grotesque, decomposing form haunting her dreams. The more intense the visions, the harder she works to get justice. She is also being followed by a magical trail of blood for most of the movie and what this leads to is surprising. However, the best fantastical moment is when a stuffed tiger toy shows the kids a way to escape a tricky situation.
“…does not shy away from the grotesque and disturbing…”
As a director, López manages to create a haunting atmosphere that doesn’t let up the entire runtime. Juan Jose Saravia lenses a movie that seamlessly integrates the energetic but unflinching style of Fernando Meirelles and the fantastical ideas of Guillermo del Toro into one beautiful, resolute fairy tale. Hell, for my money, this is a better original movie then del Toro has ever made. The score by Vince Pope is spooky and perfectly matches the intensity onscreen.
The best element of the movie is its exceptional young cast. Lara is especially surprising, bringing a youthful exuberance to a downtrodden world and selling the vision of the macabre in a soulful way. Juan Ramón López’s fast-talking style is astounding, and his camaraderie with the other orphans is excellent. Arredondo stuns as the mute boy who is trying to figure out why these bad things keep happening.
Tigers Are Not Afraid isn’t quite the masterful dark fairy tale it aspires to be. The humor is entirely unnecessary and tonally misplaced. But what it gets right, it does brilliantly. The acting is superb, the mix of fantasy and realistic drama is sublime, and the story is haunting and fascinating in equal measure.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (2018) Directed by Issa López. Written by Issa López. Starring Juan Ramón López, Paola Lara, Hanssel Casillas, Nery Arredondo, Tenoch Huerta.
8 out of 10