Tigers Are Not Afraid, written and directed by Issa López, is a new Mexican fantasy horror film that feels almost as if Pan’s Labyrinth had been transposed to the modern day. Although it is nowhere near as visionary as that masterpiece, this is nonetheless a mostly effective dark fairy tale told from a unique voice.
The movie is about a group of kids who are on the run from the cartel and the ghosts that haunt them, armed with three magical wishes. This is a pretty common fairytale set-up, and horror spins on fairy tales seem to be getting done more and more frequently, but López still manages to make the film her own by making it feel entirely and effectively personal.
That said, the movie fails to immerse you fully in its world for some reason. Unlike the works of del Toro, whom López so obviously admires, the world of this film is not alluring. Of course, López seems to be using her movie as a commentary on cartel violence in Mexico, but for magical realism to work, there needs to be something magical about the film, and that sense of magic and wonder is what is missing.
The character development also isn’t as impactful as it could have been. There is enough development there for us to connect with the characters on a basic level — we feel sympathy for the kids because they are being chased by the cartel, especially at such a horrifyingly young age — but they also feel somewhat archetypal. You can’t help but feel like you have seen these exact characters before.
Additionally, the movie doesn’t quite have the emotional resonance that it should probably have. Perhaps because we aren’t fully invested in the world or perhaps because we can’t entirely believe the characters, some of the moments that are supposed to be more hard-hitting don’t quite land. It’s off-putting when the film comes to a near total halt in an attempt to get an emotional reaction.
The main child actress in the movie, Paola Lara, is excellent. The rest of the cast is fine, but it is Lara that steals and runs the show a majority of the time. Her performance is a significant contributor to the level of emotion that does work within the film. For such a young actress, her performance feels very subtle and natural, especially since this is her first major role.
Visually, the movie is very ambitious, and for the most part, it works. López does an excellent job of merging the gritty world of the cartels and the dark yet beautiful world of fairy tales in an interesting and aesthetically-appealing way. Even if the script does have some shortcomings, the visual storytelling is really great and shows that López has a great deal of talent.
Even though Tigers Are Not Afraid is not as good as the films which it hopes to emulate, it is able to take its seat among them because of writer-director Issa López’s skill and passion in telling the story. This is definitely worth your time to check it out.
Tigers Are Not Afraid opens in theaters on August 21.