Chupa: Netflix's latest sci-fi kids' adventure is a missed opportunity

There's a number of strangely placed elements in Chupa, Netflix's latest sci-fi kids' adventure. Least of those issues is the film's title, which, in Spanish slang, can mean fellatio. Hardly the association a children's film that crimps this hard from Steven Spielberg's E.T. (1982) wants to have. But it isn't the only issue plaguing a movie with uneven performances, a rote storyline, and a callous treatment of a stumbling, Alzheimer's-ridden Demián Bichir in a luchador costume.

Taking place in 1996, Chupa follows Alex (Evan Whitten), a fatherless kid in Kansas City who loves nineties culture and hates barbacoa meat. The former is expressed in an endless barrage of cultural and period signifiers like a Game Boy he can't put away and tee shirts that range from Beavis and Butthead to Pac-Man. The hatred of taco meat is used ad nauseum as a metonym for Alex's uncomfortable situation as a diasporic kid neither here nor there, in Mexico. 

Alex's mother (Adriana Paz) sends Alex to his grandfather's estate on a vacation without her, which he protests for similar reasons he protests to barbacoa: it's a reminder that he's not quite the American his racist white classmates wish him to be. But Alex has to go anyway, and he is quickly welcomed in by his grandfather, Chava (Bichir), a former luchador of considerable fame, and his two cousins Memo (Nickolas Verdugo) and Luna (Ashley Ciarra). Meanwhile, Richard Quinn (Christian Slater), an Indiana Jones-looking archaeologist (scientist? Zoologist? Unclear!) hunts down the trail to find the mythical chupacabra, which is rumored to have restorative powers embedded in its blood. When it becomes clear that Chava has been harboring a young chupacabra in his secluded estate in San Javier, Quinn and the family are set on a collision course over the squirrely animal.

Amongst the myriad of aspects the film can't quite get a handle on is Alex's relationship with his own identity. Cuarón uses the overused trope of a dead father to suggest that Alex is, like the young chupacabra, without a family. But that feels hard to accept considering he has an attentive mother, an adoring grandfather, and two cousins. If the film is supposed to be about learning that family is more expansive than traditional definitions, then the film misses the mark; when Alex talks about not having one, he comes across as petulant, not sympathetic.

More curious is the film's rocky relationship with the Spanish language. Alex barely speaks it, which makes sense considering he is an American who has no emotional connection to his parents' country, but when the film switches locales to Mexico it twists and turns to allow Chava, Memo, and Luna to speak in half-Spanish, half-translated English sentences as if the characters are somehow aware that an audience of American kids will be watching. It further doesn't explain why Luna has perfect English but Memo can't speak a single word; choices like these might feel inconsequential, but it adds to a televisual aesthetic reminiscent of early 1990s Nickelodeon and Disney television. It makes the entire film feel less like the Spielberg it constantly references and more like the didactic writing of Gulla Gulla Island.

The film is actually at its best when it sinks its teeth deeper into the consequences of a white colonizer (Slater) on a warpath to pilfer the Global South (in this case, Mexico) of a resource (the chupacabra's magical blood) for profit. But, that element is mostly pushed to the background. It gets minor lip service in an early scene about "unhappy investors" but lets it go almost immediately.

From an alien-like creature's otherworldly abilities to its focus on children, with references to Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, and ET, Chupa never quite feels like its own movie. Produced by Chris Columbus, it seems even stranger that the movie even references Columbus's own Gremlins with a half-baked scene about feeding the chupacabra chorizo. It treats Chava's burgeoning Alzheimer's like a personality quirk rather than the life-threatening situation it really is, then bizarrely asks us to feel safe watching him driving kids around and saving them from life-or-death situations.

In the final moments of Chupa, when Chava is driving Alex back to the airport from this whirlwind adventure, he lamely gives his grandson the advice to "never be ashamed to be who you are." If that's the best the film can offer, one wishes Cuarón would take it for himself, instead of making a copy of a copy of a copy. At least then we might have something more original.