Postmodern takes on classic fairy tales have become quite a fad during the last two decades of cinema, and it is easy to understand why. Fairy tales are the few cultural artifacts that are not copyrighted every which way, so no single company has a monopoly on them. Because these stories are so ingrained in the Western subconscious, moviegoers tend to flock to these movies, if only out of basic curiosity. The master of the postmodern fairy tale has to be Guillermo del Toro, whose entire filmography could be characterized as consisting mainly of postmodern fairy tales (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) and even the exceptions to his work are very specific takes on certain fairy tale-like genres (mecha anime for Pacific Rim or the Gothic novel for Crimson Peak).
Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid (title in Spanish Vuelven) owes such a huge debt to Guillermo del Toro, especially Pan’s Labyrinth, that it is difficult to not make the comparison while watching her bold and stylish first feature. Lopez has even admitted to his influence in interviews, and del Toro himself has been a vocal proponent of this film. Set in a city in Mexico that has become a ghost town because of the violence of the drug cartels, Estrella (Paola Lara) is all alone until she finds a group of similarly orphaned boys led by a boy with the biggest chip on his shoulder who calls himself El Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez). They must elude gangsters who are mostly under the thumb of the nefarious El Chino (Tenoch Huerta), a politician who is infamous for his connections to the cartel he’s supposed to be protecting his citizens from. The film has many elements of magical realism – most notably that Estrella hears her mother’s spirit urging her daughter to find where she has been taken to.
Tigers Are Not Afraid strikes a delicate balance between gritty street drama and feverish fairy tale that Lopez pulls off quite well. It is slightly better at focusing on the real world terror that these children face, especially since Lopez spends so much time with the children and giving them distinct personalities. Even though these children have had to grow up quickly out of urgent necessity, we can see that they are still children in the way that one of them clutches to a stuffed tiger, or how excited they get when they find a house that they comment comes straight out of Lord of the Rings. They are very much the Lost Boys and Estrella becomes the Wendy to them, although she is far more active than her counterpart in Peter Pan. Estrella owns up to being the new source of danger to this group of boys, but she also tries her best to find a safe refuge for all of them.
All the child actors are so good in their roles (the person who coached the child actors in City of God also worked on this production), but Lopez as El Shine and Lara as Estrella, are standouts. Lopez’s El Shine is trying desperately to be tough for all of the boys under his protection, but he needs help as much as any of them, and Lara’s Estrella has both a quiet strength beyond her years and a very childlike view of the world around her, which is very much a survival mechanism. Tigers Are Not Afraid is shot on location, and even if the places that are filmed are real places, they become more frightening than any Gothic castle just from their starkness, and how there are no reliable adults to protect them.
It is difficult to tell if it was because of budget limitations, but the visual effects of the film are more serviceable and effective than stunning in their own right. The imagery of the graffiti and drawings coming to life, and the ever-present line of blood as a harbinger of doom are suitably childlike in their imagination. Also, the film could have worked equally well without the fantastical element, which is actually a credit to the performances and the writing itself. Most of Lopez’s previous writing/directing credits have been telenovelas and romantic comedies, so it is understandable that her first foray into horror is unpolished. Even so, with Tigers Are Not Afraid Lopez shows that she is a formidable talent who undoubtedly will go on to direct greater films in her future.