Thanks to all those who sent me answers to my discussion questions about “Tigers Are Not Afraid” (2017). You all did an excellent job of exploring of the role tigers play in this film, from the title to the final scene. Like me, one of the things you seemed to most enjoy about this film was watching how tigers gradually shift from the pure metaphor of the title into the awesome presence of the closing scenes.
Tigers transition steadily throughout the film, from the schoolroom fairy tale, to Shine’s urban legend and the spray-painted graffiti tiger that turns into a lively cartoon animal, to the childish comfort of Morro’s stuffed tiger which then becomes an animated doll after his death, to the impressively real tiger that Estrella meets at the end. This final tiger may exist only in Estrella’s mind – you were divided on that – but even if the animal remains a figment of her imagination it still aptly represents how she’s come to view herself. Estrella is not afraid of that tiger any more than it is scared of her. Ultimately, this movie is about overcoming fear, about conquering the power that fear can hold over us.
This message becomes especially significant when we consider that one of the most terrifying things about this film is how it reverses the usual horror movie trope of happy kids being thrust into a chaotic place where they must confront monsters out of their nightmares. These Mexican kids start in the nightmarish world of irrationally violent adults and must use their imaginations to save themselves. As such, this movie reminds me a lot of “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), one of my favorite Guillermo del Toro films.
“Tigers Are Not Afraid” starts with a recitation of the grim statistics of dead and disappeared children who have been victimized by the narco-cartels. Later in the film, the throngs of animated corpses ensure that all those murdered people don’t just feel like numbers any more. We see them crowding the hallways and streets.
And yet, even these reinvigorated horror movie scenes of the walking dead somehow pale in comparison to the nightmarish world that the gangs have created for these kids and their families. Zombies and ghosts hold little terror for the orphans of murdered families who live on the streets, forming their little families of their own, looking out for each other and working together to avenge their lost loved ones.
The death and burial of one of these kids in the film comes as a very poignant moment, especially when he joins the mural of weeping children on the graffiti wall. Before his death, I hadn’t realized that those graffiti children with their spray-painted tears each represented a victim of gang violence. Seeing one of our heroes join them reminds us yet again that those stats of the dead and the missing aren’t just numbers but actual lives lost, futures snatched away, with family and friends left to grieve.
This movie reverses the tropes we so often see in “It” and “Gremlins” and “Evil Dead” and such, films where groups of friends face down supernatural threats. Instead, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” makes the ghosts, the walking corpses, and even the dreaded animated doll into benevolent figures. By contrast, the adult humans represent the real monsters here.
Yet one of the most powerful things this film accomplishes as a work of imagination is to bring these poor, desperate kids to life right before our eyes. It helps us see them as individuals, not merely as bland statistics. In doing so, this movie turns what can seem like abstract, foreign factoids into the shocking reality they actually are, even as it vividly memorializes the innocent victims of these ongoing, daily horrors.