TEXAS, USA — Have you ever done a casual Google search of “chupacabra movies”? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Notice anything? “Chupacabra Territory,” “Chupacabra: Dark Seas,” “Chupacabra Terror”... aside from a 2003 Scooby Doo special, the mythical goat-blood-sucking creature of Latin American lore hasn’t left a cinematic footprint so much as offered a wealth of B-movie thrills for anyone venturing into the deep recesses of the Tubi library.
Enter “Chupa,” which, by virtue of being a Netflix original, feels as close as we’ve gotten to a marquee chupacabra movie (whatever that might mean). Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s a family affair in story and in spirit, rendering a creature elsewhere portrayed as a spindly wendigo or ghoulish phantom as a cuddly, furry hippogriff that coos through puppy dog eyes after he’s separated from his family. By the time he stumbles into the sympathetic graces of young human Alex (Evan Whitten), himself dealing with heartache, “Chupa” is already in lockstep with that familiar formula of found families and misunderstood monsters.
Bits of DNA from Spielberg, “Pete’s Dragon” and the early “Harry Potter” films can occasionally be spotted, heard and – especially for viewers who can relate to its themes of displacement – felt throughout “Chupa,” which has a sharper perspective than its unfortunate title might suggest. The fact that Mexican director Jonás Cuarón is so transparent about his influences gives “Chupa” a baseline competency it easily reaches. The more the movie skips predictably on, however, the easier it unfortunately becomes to see its small-scale charm (the climactic set piece is a borderline set tidbit) as a low-budget bug rather than a feature.
Still, the opening sequences are disarmingly sensitive. The early going of “Chupa” bears a gentle and genuine curiosity that ever so briefly suggests the director taking on the style of another member of the Cuarón clan, though the script’s insistence on hitting every familiar fish-out-of-water beat drags the momentum as much as it gives us reason to care about Alex.
Conceptually derivative as it may be, “Chupa” is nonetheless evidence of how simply putting a different lens on a well-worn story can freshen it up thematically. It sees Alex traveling from his Kansas City hometown to spend time with family in Mexico, where the cultural barriers are aplenty and his relatives are, at first, strangers. (Demián Bichir plays the grandfather he’s never met, in a role that becomes unexpectedly buoyant.)
But once Alex crosses paths with the chupacabra, you can appreciate it just enough as a threadbare story about companions misunderstood by the wider world. It’s “E.T.” through and through, sure. But there are worse movies to rip off, and despite “Chupa” bafflingly having three credited writers, it’s emotionally intelligent enough about the blend of guilt, confusion and eventual empowerment that comes with returning somewhere you’ve only ever heard about in your mom’s stories.
Too short to ever feel like it’s sleepwalking but too squeaky-cleanly constructed for its pathos to fully surface, you can’t fault “Chupa” for not digging deeper into its themes of identity when it’s got Christian Slater’s hopelessly generic scientist/hunter to introduce. But you do find yourself wondering if it restrains its more unique elements by going one cliché too far, unable to see the depth of its young heroes past the hammy villain getting his inevitable comeuppance.
"Chupa" is rated PG for some action, peril and thematic elements. It's streaming on Netflix now. Runtime: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Starring: Christian Slater, Evan Whitten, Ashley Ciarra, Nickolas Verdugo
Directed by Jonás Cuarón; written by Joe Barnathan, Sean Kennedy Moore and Marcus Rinehart, with a story credit by Brendan Bellomo