Every generation has grown up with adventure movies centered around kids and catering to both adults and children. There were “Jurassic Park,” “E.T.,” “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the “Spider-Man” trilogy, “Kung Fu Panda” films, the “Goopy Bagha” films, “Hook,” “Jumanji,” “Home Alone,” the “Toy Story” films, “Small Soldiers,” “Baby’s Day Out,” “Babe,” “Mousehunt,” “Doctor Dolittle,” “Stuart Little,” “The Little Rascals,” and the list goes on. But post-2000s cynicism and the overreliance on bad visual effects and CGI probably contributed to this decline in being awed by what you are viewing on the big screen. Superhero movies have tried to recapture the magic, and before they could come close, they’ve begun their journey downhill. So, that just leaves us with the two “Avatar” films. Now, although it isn’t a big-screen release, I’ll say that “Chupa” is one of those rare films that has the potential to make you believe in the magical and supernatural again.
Based on a story by Brendan Bellomo, Jonás Cuarón’s film, “Chupa” revolves around Quinn (Christian Slater), who wants to capture the mythical chupacabra for scientific reasons. This venture leads him to a cave where a massive mother chupacabra and a baby chupacabra reside. As Quinn and his team try to capture them, the creatures escape. The mother gets hit by a car, but it manages to lead Quinn away into the wild so that the baby gets the opportunity to escape. The narrative then shifts to Kansas City, where Alex (Evan Whitten), an American kid of Mexican descent, is struggling to fit into his school and being bullied by his White classmates. For the spring break, Alex’s mother, Julai (Adriana Paz), decides to send him to San Javier, Mexico, to stay with his “abuelo,” Chava (Demián Bichir), and Alex’s cousins, Luna (Ashley Ciarra) and Memo (Nickolas Verdugo). Alex is hesitant about going there, but when he finds out that the baby chupacabra is hiding in his grandfather’s barn, his interest in exploring his roots and his will to unite the creature with its mother are ignited.
The Writing of ‘Chupa’ Celebrates Mexico
The aforementioned references to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ works aren’t random because they are present in the film, not just in the form of toys but also in the way the story unfolds. So, you might find the whole exercise of Quinn finding the chupacabra and Alex trying to reunite the chupacabra with its mother a little too familiar. At any point, if the thought crosses your mind that you are not sensing any tension from Quinn’s entire existence, you won’t be wrong because he doesn’t pose any real danger. Well, technically, he does, but we’ve watched way too many adventure movies to know that the evil scientist is not going to get the creature at the end. Can you imagine if that happens? All the viewers will be devastated. That said, when you see Quinn’s mission as a White man’s attempt to capture a piece of Mexican lore while breaking into the home of a Mexican family, he becomes emblematic of the USA’s never-ending anti-Hispanic sentiment.
Alex, Chava, Luna, and Memo’s collective journey is all about Mexican culture and lore. When Alex gets bullied for his identity, he thinks that he should let go of his Mexican connections and become more like the rest so that he can be accepted. He’s a kid, and hence, he doesn’t understand that that’s just plain wrong. It’s only after he meets Chava, learns about his father and Chava’s Lucha Libre history, becomes familiar with Mexican food and music (thanks to Luna and Memo), and starts to care about the chupacabra that he realizes he has no reason to be ashamed of who he is. Chava’s arc is quite tragic, as he is forgetting who he was and who he is due to his head injury and is afraid of what he’s going to become as his mental and physical health deteriorates. So, he has to learn to trust Luna and Memo and allow them to take care of him as he has taken care of everyone around him, including the chupacabra. And, in my opinion, all of this is one of the best uses of a country’s history and mythology to comment on modern issues.
It Has A Good Balance Of Comedic And Tense Moments.
I am certain that the biggest challenge for Jonás Cuarón and his team was the CGI-generated chupacabra, and the final product is fine. Design-wise, the chupacabra has usually looked like a dog or pre-historic vampire (which is a metaphor for immigration, by the way). But the film goes for a more bobcat with wings and feathers kind of appearance, and it works. The baby is totally adorable, while the adults are intimidating, to say the least. The creatures have a sense of weightlessness about them, and there are multiple moments where it seems like the actors are looking at nothing while performing. However, the lighting on them is consistently good. There is an extended scene that takes place in broad daylight, and not only are the chupacabras lit properly, but their shadows on the ground or other surfaces are quite good too. I’ll go as far as to say that the interactions between the creatures and the humans or other physical objects are competent. It’s no “Avatar 2” but it’s not “Quantumania-level bad either.
While the action-adventure scenes in the movie are sparse, Cuarón does allow the characters to breathe. You stay with them for such long stretches of time that you start to feel like you’re a part of the family. With the help of composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, DOP Aguilar, editor Dan Zimmerman, and production designer Peter Wenham, Cuarón essentially gives you a taste of Mexico from the comfort of your room. So, when things actually need to get tense on a pipeline going over a gorge, that all-too-familiar sensation of panicking for a fictional human being starts to creep in. And you realize that you care about the heroes of the story because they’ve come so far in terms of their personal journeys, and you know them a little too closely to see them die. While you can say that’s due to the writing, I think Cuarón deserves a round of applause for drawing such effective performances from his actors. Yes, Bichir and Slater are industry veterans. However, it’s a tough task to work with child actors, and he has pulled it off pretty effortlessly.
Demián Bichir and Nickolas Verdugo Deliver The Standout Performances
Evan Whitten has to oscillate between being a blank slate and carrying around the burden of losing his father. That’s difficult if you ask me. Adult actors struggle to deal with such complexities, and here you have Whitten doing it like it’s a piece of cake. Does he have room to improve? Of course, yes. But there isn’t a single moment in the film where you don’t understand what Alex is going through, and that’s more than enough for this particular role. Christian Slater isn’t doing anything too radical. However, with his whole costume and world-weary demeanor, Slater gets the job done. Ashley Ciarra, as Luna, demonstrates a sense of maturity that’s truly inspirational. That said, it comes with a sense of sympathy as well because her character is balancing her grandfather’s dementia, her overenthusiastic brother, her cousin brother who has dropped out of nowhere like a chupacabra, and then her personal dreams and aspirations. Luna is the one who is keeping it together, and that’s palpable through Ciarra’s performance.
Now, let’s talk about Demián Bichir. I came across the actor for the first time in 2012’s “Savages.” Naturally, I was under the assumption that he could only do serious roles. But after seeing him in “Chupa,” I want him to do more comedic performances because he is insanely good at it. To be specific, I think he should be cast in action comedies. Of course, there’s a tinge of sadness to his turn as Chava because the character is slowly losing himself. However, the overwhelming positivity that he brings to the fore eclipses the negative aura around the character and makes you wish you had an “abuelo” like Bichir’s Chava. The only other actor who functions at Bichir’s level is Nickolas Verdugo. In his debut as a feature film actor, this little guy exudes so much charisma and energy that the screen simply lights up every time he’s in the frame. His expressions and his dialogue delivery are always on point. And if I can be honest, Verdugo is the best actor in the cast.
At the end of “Chupa,” Chava tells Alex to never forget about his time in Mexico, and Alex promises that he’ll always keep the memory of Chava, his cousins, San Javier, and the chupacabra alive. And that gives so much depth to this apparently light film because it speaks to the constant tussle between the oldies trying to hold onto the past and the youngsters disregarding it all since it feels so unnecessary. Therefore, you can say that the Jonás Cuarón-directed film is both a fun time and an incredibly important film. You are free to put it on your T.V. (or any other mobile device) as a run-of-the-mill Netflix film targeted towards kids and let them watch it while you do your chores or go to the office. But I have a feeling that if kids or even adults really pay attention to the subtext and the text of the film, they are going to have an educational experience. I am sure that there are millions of kids whose parents had to immigrate for a myriad of reasons who face discrimination from bigots on a daily basis. They are told that they should either indulge in escapist fantasies or learn to blend in with the crowd. After all that harassment, watching a movie that teaches people to be proud of their uniqueness, their culture, their food, and their identity should be a wholesome experience. So, definitely don’t sleep on “Chupa” and watch it with your friends, family, or on your own.