In a signal of the horror genre’s expanding influence, a dark mythic creature has been reinvented as a child’s friendly companion in Chupa, an inoffensive PG flick out now on Netflix, that nonetheless raises questions about suitability for families.
If You've Seen E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, This May Look Familiar
While recent family sci-fi entries like The Adam Project surely borrowed elements from Steven Spielberg’s beloved E.T. adventure, Chupa goes for full-on clone of the classic.
It introduces a fatherless teen (Evan Whitten) who discovers a magical creature, whom he seeks to reunite with its family while hiding it from government agents.
The film is based on Mexican and Puerto Rican legends about the chupacabra, a creature purported to suck the blood of goats. (Multiple investigations have debunked its existence.)
In Spanish, chupacabra comes from chupa (“to suck”) and cabra (“goat”), so the film’s title has led many Latinos to question producers’ cultural awareness.
There Are Some Good Points
Still, Chupa doesn’t entirely disappoint with a mix of action, intrigue, and believable CGI, even if the relationships feel surface-level, due in part to clunky dialogue.
It sets up a likable protagonist in Mexican-American teen Alex, who aims to fit in with his Midwest U.S. peer group by keeping his Latino heritage low-key.
Director Jonás Cuarón, who grew up in Mexico and the U.S., ensured authenticity as kids wear '90s-era baggy clothes, along with sly touches like a Jurassic Park poster.
But Alex’s mother has scheduled a trip for him to spend time with his grandfather and cousins south of the border –- where he soon learns of the blood-sucking creature sighted by local farmers.
So, Where's the Father?
Alex's father, though long departed, has a presence through memorabilia of his career as a luchador.
Demián Bichir, the actor who plays grandfather Chava, reportedly spent hours as a child in Mexican wrestling arenas. Viewers can appreciate the zeal he brings as the film’s primary parental presence, even when wearing a luchador mask and tights.
Yet, these story elements of longing for family and finding a father figure never fully gel.
A Boy and His Dog, Er, Chupa
In an attempt at subtext, Chupa draws parallels between the boy and creature. The visiting cousin is relegated to sleeping in the attic, à la Kevin in Home Alone. And he also finds “chupa” in the barn attic.
(The next morning, the creature is sucking on his hand, scaring Alex, until he realizes his wound has been healed rather than life drained from him.)
Any Religious Subtext, Though?
While Chupa comes from Catholic producer Chris Columbus, whose past films like Home Alone have sublime religious dimensions, Chupa doesn’t raise transcendent questions with its plot or dialogue.
A fleeting glimpse of a Christian icon can be seen on a wall, and Alex’s grandfather sometimes wears a cross. But dark myths are more prevalent than religion here.
But the Critter Is Cute
Admittedly, the main draw, Chupa –- a winged dog-like creature -– is an adorable little sucker and steals the show when he’s onscreen. The child actors do a stellar job of interacting with the CGI creation in a believable way.
An action scene near the film’s close involving a rescue attempt atop a steep canyon offers a thrilling resolve to what’s mostly a low-stakes story.
Note to Parents
Even though it’s horror-lite and perhaps appropriate for some kids as young as eight, it’s understandable that some parents will view Chupa as a gateway drug to darker fare.
A news report early in the film gives a gory look at animals supposedly drained of blood, and a few jump scares will frighten little ones before the cuddly creature emerges.
There’s a worthy attempt here to tell an authentically Mexican story, though many Latino commentators aren’t buying it. And it’s baffling why anyone wants to do PR on behalf of the dark mythic chupacabra, rather than let those legends die.
There does seem to be a trend these days of making the demonic cute and cuddly and acceptable (you can find "Cute Demon Plushie" toys on Etsy, for example).
E.T. presented a cute and charming alien, but then, we don't know for sure that, if aliens exist, that some of them aren't perfectly harmless.
The same can't be said for demons.
So, Should Families Watch?
Chupa does have a couple of well-choreographed action scenes, and the talented cast does it best with a thin script.
Overall, families are better off reaching for E.T., Pete’s Dragon (either version), or even Netflix’s The Sea Beast for a story about finding family and connection.
Image: Evan Whitten as Alex in Chupa. Credit: Netflix © 2023
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.