Chupa 2023 Movie Review
According to legend, the chupacabra is a fearsome, blood-sucking beast — a lean and intimidating animal you wouldn’t want to come across feasting on your livestock at night. Not so the cub three kids nickname “Chupa” (Spanish for “sucker”) in Mexican director Jonás Cuarón’s family-friendly Netflix movie. This one looks like a fuzzy-wuzzy baby lynx, with inquisitive amber eyes and a pair of awkward azure wings it still hasn’t learned how to use. A single glimpse of this oversized kitten and you’ll want one for your own, if not the plush version to snuggle up with at night.
That’s a pretty radical reimagining of a mythical monster usually discussed in horror terms, but an inspired way to bring a sense of Amblin-esque wonder south of the border, attempting to do for a legendary Latin American creature what films like “E.T.” did for extra-terrestrials — which is to say, turn something typically perceived as a threat into everyone’s new fantasy best friend. Cuarón doesn’t exactly hide his influences here, paying overt homage to Steven Spielberg throughout. He even goes so far as to tack a “Jurassic Park” poster on the bedroom wall of 13-year-old Alex (Evan Whitten).
The boy lives in Kansas City, but is being sent to Mexico for the summer to reconnect with his ex-luchador grandfather Chava (Demián Bichir) and cousins Memo (Nickolas Verdugo) and Luna (Ashley Ciarra). Listen to the music as he lands, and you’ll hear composer Carlos Rafael Rivera offering a low-key version of the John Williams theme that plays as Hammond’s helicopters fly over Isla Nublar at the beginning of “Jurassic Park.” Cuarón and DP Nico Aguilar like to keep the camera moving, craning up and down or dollying to give the film that slick summer-movie feel, despite what was clearly a far more limited budget.
Jonás Cuarón co-wrote “Gravity” with dad Alfonso, but hasn’t directed a feature since 2015’s “Desierto” (despite a noble effort to reboot Zorro about five years ago), and this isn’t exactly the movie one might expect from him. It feels more like that mellow phase that “El Mariachi” helmer Robert Rodriguez went through after deciding to enlist his kids in his work, resulting in projects like “Spy Kids” and “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.” Whatever edge we might have associated with his work has been sanded off to make something inspirational and accessible to the younger generation.
The fact that his target audience isn’t old enough to remember movies like “E.T.” or “Harry and the Hendersons” means Cuarón and screenwriters Sean Kennedy Moore, Joe Barnathan and Marcus Rinehart are free to pinch from others in assembling their own would-be classic. For example, Christian Slater’s character, Richard Quinn, was clearly inspired by Sam Neill’s iconic paleontologist, Alan Grant, sporting a similar fedora and specs when he’s first introduced in the field. Quinn’s obsessed with proving that chupacabras really exist, though he’s not interested in their well-being so much as their rumored healing powers, which he intends to sell to the American medical industry for a pretty profit.
Quinn gets pretty close to capturing a frightened chupacabra cub in the opening scene, but is blindsided by its angry mother. Both animals escape the cave where Quinn has cornered them, only to be badly wounded by a passing car. That’s where Alex comes in. None too keen to be banished to his grandfather’s boring farm, Alex is delighted to discover such an exotic companion, bonding with the newly christened “Chupa” in all sorts of adorable ways (including singing “En Tus Sueños” together in a nice nod to “Gremlins”).
The movie was produced by family-film vets Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan, whose involvement with the “Harry Potter” franchise gave them plenty of experience with computer-generated critters. Cuarón embraces their benign, audience-appeasing instincts (as opposed to Guillermo del Toro’s darker sensibility), eliminating even the chance that chupacabras might hurt the Mexican characters — whereas the Bad American gets attacked by several at once. The director could use a bit more practice working with kids, who give stiff and slightly unnatural performances here (Ciarra seems the most comfortable on camera), to say nothing of the so-so visual effects, which favor cute over convincing where the CG chimera is concerned.
Despite its setting, the movie features majority-English dialogue. That’s a curious choice, since the entire adventure is intended to teach Alex to appreciate his Mexican heritage — and also because what “Chupa” had going for it was a willingness to tailor the fantasy-pet formula to Latino audiences. Who knows, the movie may actually play best to those who’ve never heard the word “chupacabra” and therefore have no expectations about what one might look like. But it also risks turning this half-bird, half-cat creature into the other sort of chimera: a dream that doesn’t quite come true.