By the 1990s, the animal rescue film became a staple for a generation of children. Movies like Free Willy, The Great Panda Adventure, and Flipper became a genre unto themselves. Yet decades later, changing practices in Hollywood has moved away from using animals for feature films. However, Chupa from Netflix and Jonás Cuarón found the loophole. What if the creature the young protagonists saved was a cryptid? Building on the urban legend of the chupacabra, Cuarón tells a heartwarming conservation story through a Mexican lens. However, some cliches hurt the final product from being anything more than a Saturday morning family watch.
In the desert, Richard Quinn (Christian Slater) attempts to capture two real-life chupacabras. When the baby and mother part ways, Quinn continues to search. Meanwhile, a young boy Alex (Evan Whitten) visits his grandfather (Demián Bichir). His abuelo lives in Mexico, while Alex lives in Kansas City. Alex arrives and plays with his cousins Luna (Ashley Ciarra) and Memo (Nickolas Verdugo) from Mexico City. As the three go on daily adventures, they stumble upon the baby chupacabra. They name the small creature Chupa, and begin an adventure of a lifetime.
Cuarón sets up and knocks down the emotional beats of Chupa with ease. The creature finds its way to our protagonist. Our protagonist hides it from everyone. Eventually, forces outside their unit come looking for the creature. The story might be formulaic, but it became a trope for a reason. Not only does it help keep the narrative easy to follow, but it allows the audience to stay engaged even if a language barrier exists.
Wisely, Cuarón lets the characters speak across multiple languages, and rarely do we see the dialogue repeat itself. Speaking exposition in a multi-lingual format keeps the audience on their toes and brings authenticity to the story. Considering the cultural specificity of the characters and creatures, it quickly becomes a fun, universal story of saving the animals in your backyard.
At the same time, Chupa leans into some controversial tropes. For example, while the story feels alive when it uses the visual language of the luchador, it does so in a cartoonish way. To make matters worse, the character who dons the mask and costume suffers from a degenerative brain disorder (although it’s never confirmed which one). It’s one thing to play into the camp nature of these stories, but writing off legitimate health concerns for comedy rubs the wrong way.
While Chupa may not be perfect, it does offer plenty of cheer-inducing moments. There’s livewire energy throughout, and Cuarón treats us to fun action setpieces. Even the design of the chupacabra in question stands out. While the visual effects may not always shine through, plenty of moments help us engage in the emotional takeaways of the story. With this much heart, it’s no wonder that Netflix continues to platform fun adventure films for younger audiences.