In the ongoing push for more creators from diverse backgrounds in the film industry, one of the most prominent filmmakers in the world of animation has been Mexican writer-director Jorge R. Gutierrez, who first made waves on Nickelodeon with his cartoon series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera and feature film The Book of Life. Gutierrez continues to be a voice to pay attention to with Maya And The Three, a new Netflix animated miniseries that tells a marvelous, fantastical tale for families of all races and ages to find enthralling thanks to gorgeous animation and stellar performances from its voice cast, as well as Gutierrez’s energetic writing and direction.
Taking place in the fictional kingdom of Teca, the titular Maya (Zoe Saldana) is the teenage daughter of King Teca (Jorge R. Gutierrez), and set to be coronated into a diplomatic role within her kingdom, but she has the heart of a warrior and longs to accompany her father and three brothers Lance, Daggers and Shield (all voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal) on their adventure to fulfill an ancient prophecy that foretells the coming of a great eagle and three jaguars who will defeat the gods of the underworld. However, the Prince of Bats, Zatz (Diego Luna) crashes the ceremony to inform Maya she must sacrifice her life to the God of War, Lord Mictlan (Alfred Molina) as an act of repayment for a misdeed her parents committed against him in the past, with Maya’s refusal bringing about Mictlan’s monstrous wrath.
This and a shocking revelation about the prophecy itself sends the fearless princess on a quest to find the Rooster Wizard, Rico (Allen Maldonado), the Skull Archer, Chimi (Stephanie Beatriz), and the Puma Warrior, Picchu (Gabriel Iglesias) so they can save their worlds from destruction and fulfill their destinies together. But little does she know that other gods in the Mesoamerican pantheon are lying in wait along the way, from the wise, helpful sage Ah Puch (Rita Moreno) to ones with evil intentions like the God of Earthquakes, Cabrakan (Danny Trejo) and the Goddess of Alligators, Cipactli (Rosie Perez).
At nine half-hour long episodes, Maya And The Three is thrilling from the start to its finish thanks to Gutierrez’s direction. The vibrant environments his characters explore help keep the narrative always feeling grand in spectacle, while the computer animated ensemble graces the screen with fluid movements, casting spells and making their corresponding attacks in front of colorful backgrounds that transport themselves from the jungles in which they fight to beautiful streaks of light, not unlike a splash page. The comic book influence also makes its presence felt through a dynamic use of split screen, and moments where weapons, magic, and even characters’ whole bodies pop from the confines of the widescreen aspect ratio toward the audience, as if to emphasize the epic scale of Maya’s adventure without true 3D capabilities.
Gutierrez’s writing is also spirited and charming in every episode, and it shows through the unique quirks he gives his characters, from the animal sounds Chimi uses to express emotion and King Teca’s jovial demeanor to Maya’s three brothers speaking in unison and interrupting each other to finish a single sentence, as well as Gran Bruja’s giant nose pulling characters closer to her person for a private conversation.
The script for Maya And The Three also differentiates itself from other recent animated media aimed for kids by covering subject matter that most films won’t explore, and this manifests itself in the show’s spiritual elements. Stories about gods across the pantheons often take turns for the strange, and those deviations are present in this miniseries that combines elements from Mayan, Aztec and Inca mythology, but they’re depicted in a way that’s plausible in the scale of the show’s universe and palatable, if occasionally frightening, for audiences.
This also extends to the dimensions of Maya and her three recruits as characters; everyone wrestles with an inner torment over respective traumas from the past, and their journeys to discover their own self-worth feature all of them bonding over musings about forgiveness, death, unity, overcoming adversity as outsiders, the definition of glory and what it means to be a leader. These are communicated in concise, positive messages for children and adults to take with them upon the show’s conclusion. It’s also worth noting that the diverse ensemble of actors lend their voices wonderfully to each role, showcasing incredible range whether they’re conversing around a campfire sharing dramatic secrets about their lives or assisting each other in the thrills of battle against a manipulative band of devilish gods.
Maya And The Three is thoughtful, joyous, always high in stakes and lively in spirit, but all too often, scenes shift back and forth from these moods at a pace that’s so fast, early episodes in the miniseries end abruptly, and audiences often don’t feel the power of some emotional beats or miss the punchline to a joke throughout the show. On that note, the film’s sense of humor tries too hard to connect to its target audience through sparse referential jokes and allusions to a romance between two particular characters, but thankfully those moments are few and far between each other.
The constant mood shifts can also be considered a testament to Gutierrez’s passion for his Mexican heritage and his enthusiasm for animation as a medium, and he has truly made something special in Maya And The Three. The series will open audiences’ eyes to the transcendental ideas within Mexican spirituality, and encourage them to learn more about not only the Hispanic culture, but also their own heritages. Children will marvel in wonder over the colors of the Mesoamerican world and its magical elements, while adults will ponder its ideas, root for Maya to overcome the pain she bears in battle, and be endeared by all the characters thanks to the talent of the show’s diverse voice cast. Animated miniseries are scarce in the world of Western animation, but they make unforgettable waves when they arrive, and Maya And The Three is a Netflix event not to be missed by audiences of all races and ages.