Now streaming on:
The titular beast buddy in “Chupa” is irresistible. Just you try and not to love this puppy-cat with wings, who coos, chitters, and sometimes purrs when he’s not unleashing those bashful eyes. And when Chupa flaps his wings while learning to fly, sometimes we can see their rainbow-colored gloss. Chupa is good PR for a character usually defined by goat killing and sharp fangs, a far cry from the previous movie images of Mexico's mythical el chupacabra.
Chupa is also one of the only original ideas from this generic family film and exercise in CGI character-making from director Jonás Cuarón. Such a lack of ambition would be less glaring had Cuarón not previously co-written “Gravity” with his father, Alfonso Cuarón. Little in this movie, written by Sean Kennedy Moore, Joe Barnathan, and Marcus Rinehart, suggests a similar sci-fi imagination. But there are plenty of references to things of the past: a John Williams-esque score from Carlos Rafael Rivera and a few cameos from “Jurassic Park” merchandise in the movie’s 1990s setting. “Chupa” willfully becomes one of those family films that takes plenty from the toy box of cliches left before and hardly gives anything back.
The boy who initially discovers the movie’s secret creature—sought after by forces of capitalism and science—is Alex (Evan Whitten), a loner kid who is bullied by his white classmates in Kansas City. Alex is sent down by his mother (his father died of cancer, a plot point) to Mexico to hang with his former luchador grandfather (Demián Bechir) and his two cousins Luna (Ashley Ciarra) and Memo (Nickolas Verdugo). But Alex would rather play with his Game Boy, and the language barrier discourages him. Little by little, in one lightly sweet scene after the next, Alex’s hosts get him to try Mexican food, experiment with fireworks, and even learn how to be a luchador, like his father once was.
Enter Chupa, also on his lonesome, looking for somewhere to belong. He’s being hunted by a tenacious poacher played by Christian Slater, and it’s revealed to us through the movie’s typical expository dialogue that Chupa will have great economic value once captured. Chupa finds his way to the family’s ranch home, and finds a friend in Alex—in one bonding moment, Chupa even shares his food with Alex, a squished rat. Chupa’s presence accelerates Alex’s own emotional story, and the two outsiders learn to stand up for themselves, bolstered by the power of family.
Part of the movie’s supposed charm is that it’s predictable, with Cuarón mistaking familiar with cute and warm. When it comes to a wash like this movie, maybe it helps to consider what it doesn’t have compared to other animal buddy adventures. There isn’t a sequence where Chupa helps him defeat some bullies, where Chupa skateboards, or a scene where Chupa dances in a McDonald’s. But this list nudges a different problem—this overly simplified story also doesn’t make much room for connectivity. There isn’t a whole lot of time for us to feel their bond or for us to see how Chupa is him, and he is Chupa, etc. “Chupa” can be cute on cue, but its emotional tissue is thin.
Cuaron is working with very modest set-pieces here, and the small cast is good enough at trying to make Chupa’s make-up of zeroes and ones seem real. It’s a good grab for Cuarón that he has Bechir in particular, who fills cliche emotional scenes and weak thrilling sequences which as much heart and bluster as he can—he puts a sincere smile on moments when talking about his past as a luchador, and then pounds his chest when it’s time for the day to be saved. Bechir fares better than Slater, who merely labors to portray “dastardly” in a course of events that can be predicted beat-by-beat.
It’s a shame that this well-meaning movie is often so rote, especially as it boasts an intriguing eye from Cuarón, and cinematographer, Nico Aguilar. The two create many flowing sequences with the camera moving between shot styles without cutting, allowing dialogue scenes to go between close-ups and wide shots in one take. It’s a smart way to hold our attention from start to finish in scenes where the script’s dialogue pretends kids can’t handle a little nuance. There’s even a little homage to the famous shot from 1927's "Wings," though that too is a mini spectacle that sells itself short.
Now playing on Netflix.
Demián Bichir as Chava
Evan Whitten as Alex
Christian Slater as Richard Quinn
Ashley Ciarra as Luna
Nickolas Verdugo as Memo
Julio Cedillo as Dr. Juan Carlos Ortega