When a child connects to an otherworldly creature on a cinematic landscape, magical things usually happen. From E.T. to Pan’s Labyrinth to Where the Wild Things Are and beyond, the bond between a kid and a being from another realm can speak to the true nature of friendship and compassion.
Now, Mexican filmmaker Jonás Cuarón (Desierto) reaches into his own cultural upbringing to tell a similar story about love and acceptance, this time between a boy and a legendary beast that – until now – has been portrayed as a bloodthirsty monster in film and TV.
In Chupa, Cuarón, who is the son of Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), tells the story of Alex (Evan Whitten), a young boy who travels to Mexico to visit his ex-luchador grandfather (Demián Bichir) and his cousins. While there, Alex discovers that a chupacabra cub, who he names Chupa, is living in his abuelo’s shed. He also learns that a scientist (Christian Slater) is tracking the cub, so he can harness the magical powers of the winged creature.
Cuarón remembers first hearing about the chupacabra in the mid-90s when he was living in Mexico. “As a kid, it was very exciting to hear about a magical creature,” Cuarón told Remezcla during a recent interview. “It was obviously a scary creature, but there was always something exciting about those stories that brought up the possibility of magic out there.”
Although Cuarón had heard Mexican folklore tales before like La Llorona and El Cucuy, the chupacabra was different because it didn’t have the same extensive history as those other stories. Since the chupacabra narrative didn’t begin until the mid-1970s, the modern monster seemed more authentic to Cuarón.
“All those other characters were from old folklore,” Cuarón said. “But as kids, we would hear about sightings of a new character and that would make it more real and exciting.”
While there have been many different versions over the years of what the chupacabra looks like, what was more important to Cuarón than the final design was the way the actors would interact with it. During production, Cuarón used a real-life dog to play the role of Chupa before it was replaced in post by a computer-generated creature.
“What makes this movie so special is the way we play up the relationship between the kids and the creature,” Cuarón said. “It was really important for me to bring in that feeling. So, we had a dog named Harper stand in for Chupa. The dog was so cute, he brought in that natural emotion. [Harper] created an immediate connection with the kids.”
Another theme in Chupa that Cuarón enjoyed featuring is the fact that Alex hasn’t fully embraced his Latino culture when he first visits his grandfather and cousins in Mexico. Cuarón wanted Alex not only to connect with the chupacabra cub, but also to his roots.
“That was a very important part of the story for me,” Jonás Cuarón said. “It was an opportunity to show all the different facets of Mexican culture and really applaud it.”
Chupa premieres on Netflix on April 7, 2023.