I have been to Mexico and seen terrible things. I am not talking about the touristy beach towns; I am talking about Tijuana and similar towns all through Mexico, where the drug cartels rule the streets and people die daily. The drug wars are sadly a real thing and just as brutal as they look like on the news.
Years ago, I was part of a group that would go across the border, bringing clothes, toys, and food to an orphanage. I have seen the poverty of families living in houses built out of rubbish and bullet casings littering the gutters. It was quite an eye-opening experience for an wide-eyed Cali girl.
This sad and dismal world is the backdrop for Tigers Are Not Afraid. Writer/director Issa López has created a beautiful and heartbreaking film about five orphaned children who end up creating their own gang and are forced to live in the streets amongst the rubble of what used to be their homes. Often compared to films by Guillermo Del Toro, I agree that it is just as wonderfully fantastic, but this film has its own heart, originality, and the most gorgeous imagery I have seen in years. This is no copy of anyone else’s story.
Tigers Are Not Afraid starts out at a school, where the children are forced to hide under their desks when gunshots ring out directly outside their window. The children are terrified, and here we meet one of the students, a young girl named Estrella. (Paola Lara) While lying on the floor, her teacher, in an attempt to comfort her, slides her three pieces of chalk and tells her they are wishes. Later, when Estrella goes to her apartment, she finds her mother is missing and tries out her first wish; for her mother to come home. But wishes do not always work out the way they are expected to. Estrella has literally awoken the dead and she flees from her home in fear.
Abandoned in a desolate world, Estrella tries to make sense of it all. Not wanting to be alone, and afraid of the ghosts she ran away from, she talks her way into joining a small gang of boys who are living on a rooftop nearby. These boys are orphans too and doing their best to survive by surrounding themselves with the broken pieces of their town.
Empty TVs make good puppet stages. Battery-powered lighting, old toys, and bedding create a semblance of home. They forage for food daily. One of the little boys is only about 5 years old. The shot of him riding along on a tricycle, behind the older boys pushing their shopping cart of treasures, was so powerful. I started crying then and was sniffling my way through the rest of the film.
The gang, lead by the moody El Shine, (Juan Ramon Lopez) at first does not want to let Estrella in. But just like Peter Pan and the lost boys take in Wendy, so does this resourceful group of children accept Estrella into their fold. Naïve at first, Estrella grows quickly into a fighter. Every day is a battle for their lives, with the evil Caco (Ianis Guerrero) and El Chino (Tenoch Huerta) the leader of the Los Huascas cartel sect, always after them.
What is unique about this film is the use of animation. What could have come off as silly, works beautifully. With CGI we usually get monsters- but here the monsters are human. We are seeing this through the children’s eyes- so seeing a tiger come to life, a gold snake slither off a bad guys gun, or blood trails leading the way, remember this is how a child would cope. How else could they deal with the atrocities they see daily in this war-torn world? They find time to play, tell fairy tales, and dream good dreams. The nightmare will still be there when they wake, but maybe they are able to heal a tiny bit while asleep. This is a somber tale of innocence lost.
The children eventually must face the gangsters that rule their world and stole their parents away from them. With some help from Estrella’s wishes and some angry spirits that may or may not be in Estrella’s mind, justice is served. I do not want to give more away- but just know the film has a very satisfying finale, even as it breaks your heart.
I love everything about this film.
From the beautiful cinematography, and the awesome score to the child actors who I cannot believe had little or no experience acting prior to this. Issa Lopez has such an amazing eye, each scene could almost be a painting or a still photo, the images are so stunning. This is an epic fantasy that broke my heart and will be one of my favorite horror films forever!
Tigers Are Not Afraid is about real-life horror seen through the eyes of the children who are in the middle of it. The evils they had to endure are never-ending. This is a magical yet terrifying story about what a group of orphaned children had to deal with while trying to survive on their own. I cannot comprehend how they even did it. Issa Lopez has created a world with characters you cannot help but love and others we hate so much it hurts. The real children in Mexico that have had to go through this are given a voice. This enchanting film will stay with you long after the credits roll.
”There is a place where innocence and fantasy are the only escape.”
A Shudder release, Tigers Are Not Afraid was available on DVD and DVD/Blu-ray SteelBook on May 5, 2020
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