Employing a delicate balance between foreshadowing and surprise twists, director Jorge R. Gutierrez achieves a sweet clarity of storytelling in his nine-chapter series about a Mesoamerican-inspired warrior princess on an epic quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy and save humanity from the vengeful gods of the underworld.
On the day of her coronation, fifteen-year-old princess Maya (Zoe Saldana) is unexpectedly plunged into a world of adventure and peril, when the evil Lord Mictlan, God of War (Alfred Molina), sends his emissary to the city of Teca to deliver a deadly ultimatum. To complete her epic quest – which spans nine episodes and is filled with extraordinary wonders from start to finish – Maya battles powerful enemies, discovers the hidden truth about her own past, and learns the true value of the friendships she makes along the way.
The boundless energy of director Jorge R. Gutierrez, creator of Maya and the Three, is evident from the first frame of this explosively entertaining story set in a mythological Mesoamerica. From the towering ziggurats of Teca to the vibrant Luna Island and flame-filled underworld, the fantastical realm Gutierrez has conjured is brimming with life and color.
More colorful still are the characters. Maya is the archetypal rebellious teenager, a misunderstood girl standing on the brink of womanhood, struggling to find her own identity in a world that is often hard to understand. When challenged, she argues. In the face of overwhelming odds, she fights. As her father remarks: “Maya’s rebel fire burns bright.”
While Maya’s fiery spirit imbues her with courage, she is far from perfect. She lies to her companions about her motives and doubts herself at critical moments in the narrative. Maya’s complexity makes her that most welcome of creatures – a young female protagonist with real depth. It is this depth that makes her not only engaging, but also believable.
Like their leader, each of Maya’s three companions is a misfit. An object of ridicule his whole life, Rico (Allen Maldonado) lacks confidence in his magical abilities and wants only to make his elders proud. Chimi (Stephanie Beatriz), abandoned at birth because of the way she looks, is a loner inured by hardship who has never known what it is to have friends. Picchu (Gabriel Iglesias) has been guilt-ridden ever since an act of mercy backfired, and now seeks nothing but a noble death.
Alongside these and other human characters, the world of Maya and the Three is populated by a pantheon of gods drawn from every corner of Mesoamerican culture. At every turn our heroes battle a new set of divine foes, who burst on to the screen like lucha libre wrestlers ready for the latest smackdown – these include Camazotz (God of Bats), Cabra Kan (God of Earthquakes), Cipactli (Goddess of Gators) and Xtabay (Goddess of Illusions). Yet the deities are not always what they seem, however. Just like the humans, they are complex characters with their own stories to tell. This is a tale not only of imperfect heroes, but also of villains with depth – and shifting allegiances.
It is this emphasis on character that makes Maya and the Three such a joy to watch. Every episode is packed with spectacularly imaginative fight sequences, yet the action is always driven by character. Gutierrez consistently takes time to point his camera at the faces of his protagonists. Through a delicate balance between foreshadowing and surprise twists, he achieves a sweet clarity of storytelling that ensures the motivations of the characters are clear at all times.
Furthermore, this dedication to clarity allows Gutierrez to show off the vast scale of his imagined Mesoamerica without fear of overwhelming the characters. The environmental design is gorgeous, with the imposing geometry of pre-Columbian architecture echoed in the forms of the natural world, and even in the characters themselves, especially the monolithic warriors of Teca and the anatomically exaggerated gods. Evoking the paintings of artists such as Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo, the rich compositions are unforgettable in their sensuality and splendor.
By drawing on the continent’s rich wealth of indigenous art and design, Gutierrez identifies and depicts motifs that survive in artisanal crafts, but which are under-represented in the dominant media of our time. By simultaneously celebrating and normalizing Mesoamerican heritage, he allows the culture to assert its identity and take its place on a global stage.
The alignment of culture and creativity is clearly at the core of Gutierrez’s mission. It was evident in his animated feature The Book of Life, and it is even more apparent in Maya and the Three. This is storytelling through the lens of anthropology. At the same time, the series is culturally aware in a way that transcends cliché and promotes ideas of pluralism. Somehow Maya and the Three manages to be somehow niche and mainstream, accessible and progressive, all at the same time – a glorious combination.
Above all, Maya and the Three is full of heart, thanks in large part to Maya herself, the rebellious heroine who follows the mantra that recurs through the series, and which becomes heartbreakingly relevant in the final episode: “If it is to be, it is up to me.” It is tempting to imagine this assertion coming from the mouth of Jorge R. Gutierrez when he first conceived his Mesoamerican epic. If this wonderful world of humans and gods was ever to become a reality, it was up to a visionary like Gutierrez to create it. I am so grateful that he did.
Maya and the Three premieres today on Netflix.
Dr. Maria Elena Gutierrez is the CEO and executive director of VIEW Conference, Italy’s premiere annual digital media conference. She holds a Ph. D from Stanford University and a BA from the University of California Santa Cruz. VIEW Conference is committed to bringing a diversity of voices to the forefront in animation, visual effects, and games. For more information about the VIEW 2021 program of events, visit the official website: http://viewconference.it