Since Walt Disney and a continuously underappreciated crew of animators brought the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale Snow White to life in 1937, the genre has just about seen it all: every manner of mystical creature, enchantment, and curse, every style of castle, dress, and malevolent sneer. The film’s wild success—it set a record as the highest grossing sound film—led to the adaptation of more fairytales, and those films’ success led, of course, to expansion, recreation, parody, new meta fairytales, whole damn theme parks, and so on and so forth for eternity ever after.
Lately, the ripples caused by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves have been feeling like sultanic waves. Witches and princesses are proving to be the only thing as lucrative as men in capes, and Hollywood is leaving no tiara unturned. Your mileage will undoubtedly vary on the new crop of olden tales. Where some have opted to hew traditional, others have added woke spins; where some choices have seemed destined... there’s also Will Smith’s top-knot. And try as the updaters of classic fairytales might, an obvious fact is inescapable: These stories, with their patriarchal realms, comforting simplicity, and old-fashioned morals, were made for our ancestors, not for us.
No fairytale makes that more evident than a new one to the canon: Tigers Are Not Afraid, from the Mexican director Issa López. Though, if López didn’t call her new film a fairytale, you might not recognize it as one. López’s film is more indebted to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende than that of the Magic Kingdom, and it leaves out many of the hallmarks associated with America’s godfather of Once Upon a Time. This isn’t a rags-to-riches, up-by-your-bootstraps fantasy; a prince doesn’t rescue and woo a princess; Tigers, ultimately, breaks from reality, but it’s not an escape.
One hallmark it does include, though, is an orphan protagonist. Her name is Estrella (Paola Lara), and she’s a young, pink-loving, pony-tailed girl living in an impoverished, present-day Mexican city. Her father is out of the picture and her mother’s been abducted by a sinister cartel. When a shooter attacks her school, her teacher gives her three pieces of chalk, each good for a wish. The chalk, though, doesn’t have the clean logic of, say, a genie in a lamp. When Estrella wishes for her mother to return, she gets a frightening ghost spirit. And as she uses her other wishes, she finds they too come with unintended scary or undesirable consequences. In this modern Mexican world, fate and magic struggle to compete with reality.
Mind you, some (or all) of this might just be in Estrella’s head. Before the school shooting, her teacher asks each member of the class to write a fairytale; López leaves open the possibility that what we’re watching is Estrella’s. Whether it is or not ultimately doesn’t really matter. Either way, the magic is borne out of imagination, and either way, imagination is the only way to cope with a harsh reality—one in which there most certainly is rampant gang violence that leaves children parentless and fending for themselves.
Those sorts of horror stories within the city of Juarez—children ”preyed upon by the cartels to become child soldiers. Or, you know, sold as prostitutes”—provided the seed of Tigers. And though López has said she took it easy on the bleakness, you get the picture. With nowhere else to turn, Estrella joins a group of boxcar boys who’ve also lost their parents to drug violence. The head of the gang, Shine (a mesmerizing Juan Ramón López), is a talented thief and an ornery leader, who’s vehemently opposed to allowing girls in the gang. Early on, he steals a gun and phone from the cartel leader who killed his own mother, and the group of kids spends much of the film running and hiding, coming face to face with death, and absorbing a great deal of squalor. Though Tigers frames Shine as Estrella’s unlikely prince, he’s ultimately more reliant on her than she is on him; in López’s world, there’s no such thing as a male savior.
But it’s not all misery for Estrella and the gang. The world these children move through is often extraordinarily beautiful, sometimes surreally so. Abandoned buildings are castles with zoos and makeshift soccer pitches. The image and idea of the tiger—which is said to be a symbol of courage and personal strength, at least according to the sage folks at Animal Planet—is everywhere. The kids are graffiti artists, plucky voyagers, and tender keepers of one another. There’s a lot of love, and it’s not superficial, destined, or even romantic. As a viewer, you feel it, too. With bravery, cunning, and even humor, these kids make the most out of dire circumstances; you’d be evil to not to love—or at least feel for—them.
Though, as an American viewer, that kind of evil isn’t so hard to imagine. There are no allusions to walls or cages in Tigers, but it would be hard for those things not to be in the back of your mind. What’s stopping Estrella from becoming a princess isn’t magic or a fairy godmother; it’s the empathy and assistance of people in power. López ends her film on a fleetingly hopeful note, but it’s not because the greatest exporter of fairytales gave these kids a happily-ever-after.
Originally Appeared on GQ