Chupa stars Evan Witten in the lead role of Kansas City middle schooler Alex. The film sees the 13-year-old fly to Mexico to meet his extended family, much to his dismay. Like a lot of young teenage boys in the 90s, Alex would rather play video games and be seen as a typical American than get the chance to know his relatives and explore his heritage. But once he begins to get acquainted with his cousins, Luna (Ashley Ciarra) and Memo (Nickolas Verdugo), and his grandfather, Chava (Demián Bichir), he opens up.
This is largely due to the fact that Alex discovers an interesting creature in his grandfather’s shed. Recognizing it from stories he’s heard, he realizes it’s a chupacabra cub. Meanwhile, a scientist named Richard Quinn (Christian Slater) is on the hunt for these chupacabras nearby, believing they can be used for medicinal purposes. The story becomes a high-stakes adventure with threads of fantasy, family, culture, and more.
With direction by Jonás Cuarón, who’s worked with his father, acclaimed filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, on films like the science fiction thriller Gravity, and Chris Columbus (director of Home Alone) as a producer, it’s no wonder Chupa does a great job at making the story quite fantastical and adventuresome. For example, although the CGI recreation of the chupacabra may not be the best technically, the reimagining of what is usually depicted as a monstrous, ugly creature into an enchanting lynx-koala-dragon-like creature is rather thoughtful. Couple this with the child-meets-creature reminiscences to Amblin Entertainment favorites like Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982), Columbus’ Gremlins (1984), and the Jurassic Park films, and you’ve got an endearing and heartfelt whirlwind of a tale.
Chupa succeeds further in its thoughtfulness in taking the culturally-relevant myth of the chupacabra and not letting it just become a silly foreign horror legend. While many films have included the chupacabra in the past, they tend to simply portray them as scary creatures and the stories they reside in tend to forego any attempts at cultural nuances and can even be harmful. Whereas here, we witness a story of chupacabras—creatures reportedly spotted throughout Puerto Rico and Latin America—being protected by the protagonist of Mexican heritage. Additionally, there are other genuine cultural elements to the story, like Alex feeling out of place at his school, him being the victim of racist bullies, and him later learning about Mexican culture, including learning more Spanish, from his extended family.
Chupa also does a good job in its exploration of family. It’s always a delight to see relatives like cousins bonding and having fun on film, and here, that concept really takes off. Further, Alex’s character receives even more depth due to the fact that he had recently lost his father to cancer in the story. Rather than turning this into something like a one-time mention, Alex’s grieving process is weaved in throughout the film. Grief is a tough topic to properly take on into any film, and here, in a children’s/family film, it’s done with a genuinely decent effort.
But like every film, Chupa is not without its share of flaws. For one, while it does tackle the chupacabra in a better way than most films have, it still left me hoping for more proper knowledge about it, perhaps by having the abuelo share how the myth came about, as well as its importance to Hispanic culture. Similarly, the script overall is rather basic and includes several clichés and overused tropes. For example, the character of Richard Quinn is not really any different from other evil scientist characters that appear in many children’s narratives. And on another low, the acting could use some work. The performances are nowhere near unbearable, but the lack of discipline is noticeable, so they’re not near first-rate either.
Still, Chupa is nowhere near a bad choice, especially if you’re into children’s and fantasy features in general, and even more so if you appreciate threads of culture and family in these films. It’s a relatable story for many in its cultural aspects, and one that many can otherwise connect with as well, thanks to its general coming-of-age and family elements.
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Chupa is not a perfect or even near-perfect film, but its genuine charm and attempt at being culturally-nuanced make it a film worth watching.
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