Tigers Are Not Afraid (2019)

A dark, twisted fantasy film unlike anything I’ve ever seen blending Mexico-set narcotics crime drama, horror, & children’s fairy tales with hallucinogenic direction & brilliance in socially-conscious narrative reimagining childhood-trauma. 9/10.

Plot Synopsis: A haunting horror fairytale set against the backdrop of Mexico’s devastating drug wars, Tigers Are Not Afraid follows a group of orphaned children armed with three magical wishes, running from the ghosts that haunt them and the cartel that murdered their parents.

*Possible spoilers ahead*

Review

“Los Tigres No Tienen Miedo.. They Navigate The F*cked Up World Around Them & Survive”

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Review: “Los tigres no tienen miedo.. They navigate the f*cked up world around them, and survive to see another day.” Blossoming Mexican filmmaker Issa López was met with skepticism from the film community upon revelation her new project would tackle fairy tales through a narcotics/horror-realist lens. Fairy tales have become so clichéd in pop culture (with Disney monopolizing/wringing dry the concept for 80+ years, from Snow White to Frozen); is it possible to reinvent or innovate the premise entirely in the most bizarre of locations with a horror twinge wholly uncharacteristic of the genre? The answer: Yes.. Oh boy, yes it is. A dark, twisted fantasy film unlike anything I’ve *ever* seen before blending Mexico-set narcotics crime drama, horror, & children’s fairy tales with hallucinogenic direction & brilliance in social-consciousness narrative, Tigers Are Not Afraid is a masterpiece & the best film of 2019.

The Genre Blend Unlike Anything I’ve *Ever* Seen Before & Mexico-Set Dark Fantasy Tale

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The genre blend unlike anything I’ve *ever* seen. Most dazzling about Tigers Are Not Afraid is the cocktail of different genres blended so deftly (+ innovatively), it transitions and bounces between them almost imperceptibly to the naked eye. Following the construct of a fairy tale with the (well-established) three wishes trope, it could not be farther from the classical definition of one. The film is set in the grimey, drug/cartel-infested urban cityscape of a Mexico in chaotic disarray – so brutal in masochistic violence, we’re bombarded with ghastly imagery of school shootings, point-blank revolver executions, and kids living on the streets made parentless for no reason at all for a thick smack of the skull and empathy nerve of anyone watching. The unspeakably-bestial setting is absolutely brilliant, playing off its title and starkly opposing normal definitions or preconceptions of expected glittery/sparkling fantasy backdrops wherein cute animals come from the forest to eat fruit from your fingertips – this is the dark underworld of that vision. Anchoring it in realism while also giving it a concrete jungle flair with graffiti coming alive and prized stuffed animals walking besides ghosts of children that once held them dear, the setting somehow manages to blend both 21st-century feel with timeless Grimm-fairytale checklist items.

The Characters & Child Performances

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The villain is everpresent and clear-cut here being a (sadistic) crooked politician promising peace but running the crime empire behind the city’s backs, merry band of characters here innocent kids trying to find some semblance of life amongst all this despair, Prince Charming innovated in a young-love Estrella/Shine angle, and magic in wish-fulfillment also given a fittingly-dark yet purposeful reimagining to reflect the surrounding filth, supply some fantastic zombie/supernatural horror, & climax in the epic finale. The characters and child performances. I honestly could not believe these were child actors. Spoiled with the notion child actors have to be Macaulay Caulkin or Lindsay Lohan-like divas in kids’ comedies off Disney Channel (the situation here in America), it seems absolutely *ludicrous* that kids could rise to serious, Oscar-level performances in narcotics crime dramas like this. Yet, that’s exactly what happens before our very eyes on screen in this dazzling display of top-tier acting I’m convinced must-have been seasoned adult actors behind the scenes or digitally de-aged.

Social-Consciousness In Philosophically-Weighty Yet Universally-Palatable Stylism

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Paola Lara’s Estrella – of course – steals the show as lead in what I hope will be a career-launching performance for her as a perfect, marks-hitting innocent little girl simply searching for home and purpose after her mother is taken away from her loving grasp by the Huascas. Her gentle-yet-brave cinematic presence steeped in empathizable childhood trauma (anyone with similar background will find solace & relatability in) is only magnificently-supported by equally-impressive white-knight-reinvented Juan Ramón López’s Shiné. Immaculately character developed across the film from jerk to sympathizable hero, his dark-tripped past and arc is sensational – steeped in emotion and deep care for his makeshift-family child gang that’s also rife with phenomenal characters we grow to LOVE like the indescribably-adorable Tucsi (& his stuffed tiger) and hilarious Pop. Finally, Tenoch Huerta’s big bad makes for a bone-chilling villain so imposing in presence that even cops actively look away when given video proof of his misdoings. He kills his own men after their service is done and pulls strings capably behind-the-scenes, setting up such a pervasive culture of fear and paranoia in the surrounding city our heroes must try to take down (with some magical help).

Phenomenal Child Performances Led By Paola Lara’s Protagonist Estrella

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Social-conciousness in intellectually-weighty yet universally-palatable stylism. The film tackles heavy themes vital not only to Lopez’s homeland but the human experience, all in a way that feels (sneakily).. enjoyable. Themes of self-discovery and searching for home/purpose in coming-of-age motifs bleed through the immaculately-sculpted screenplay with an added (and beautifully-achieved) goal of highlighting how inhumanly-horrific the current state of Mexico life is in Lopez’s eyes. The avaricious realism in portrayal of the cartel-ruled learned helplessness these citizens are suffering through, worse than any zombie or horror movie and real life – made to hit even harder by the fact it’s viewed through a children’s lens who should be out building sand-castles & watching cartoons instead of foraging for scraps navigating the blood-soaked streets of murderous gangs like wild animals – it is absolutely powerful and emotionally-striking. The critique Lopez applies to her home’s current state so sordid and unholy even parentless children (who need wishes and any semblance of imaginative escapism more than anyone) can’t make wishes that come true correctly is vilely-effective as a means of dark social commentary in a brutal crime indie that stunningly manages to balance its tone feeling like a cross between Narcos, The Walking Dead, and 80’s Spielberg movies – all in the same canvas.

Flaws

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Like fellow phenomenal foreign masterworks of this year Birds of Passage and Ash is Purest White, the film utilizes the medium’s more-perceptive, artistic qualities to invoke a fuel/need for social change in (non-politicized) satisfying, impressive ways – in a vitally-important, magically-realist, early GDT-reminiscent fairy-tale-gone-wrong motif. Flaws are singularly-limited to some light juvenile humor in its child gang shenanigans in the middle act I wish was a bit more tonally-consistent with the rest of the film – and maybe 10-15 min longer overall to flesh out some more backstory for side characters like Pop & Tucsi (only because they’re so interesting!). That’s it.

Conclusion

A Masterpiece – Peter Pan x ’80’s Spielberg Movies x City Of God; The Best Film Of 2019

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Overall, Tigers Are Not Afraid is the best film of 2019 (U.S. Release) and gave me such a beaming, overwhelming sense of triumph, it took a couple of days to slow-simmer & collect all my thoughts and adorations before writing – a rarity in film criticism. A dark, twisted fantasy film unlike anything I’ve *ever* seen before blending Mexico-set narcotics crime drama, horror, & children’s fairy tales with hallucinogenic direction & brilliance in socially-conscious narrative, Tigers Are Not Afraid is Peter Pan meets City Of God – a wildly-innovative, inimitable, universally-palatable, *important* masterpiece blowing the doors of opportunity and originality open yet again for the artform of filmmaking.

Official CLC Score: 9/10