Netflix’s animated series Maya and the Three is a sweeping fantasy epic set in a Mesoamerican-inspired world. Creators and husband-wife team Jorge Gutiérrez and Sandra Equihua drew from a variety of Mayan, Incan, and Aztec myths and visual inspiration for their nine-episode animated epic, but from the get-go, they wanted to put a modern twist onto the ancient legends of heroes venturing into the underworld.
“How do I hack that myth?” Gutiérrez recalls asking. “In all the mythology I read, women tended to be the sleeping princess or the victim or the witch. How do we — with all the respect to mythology — how do we change it to reflect today?”
The modern update came not just in female leads like warrior princess Maya and skilled archer Chimi, but also in the specific look of the show. While Gutiérrez and Equihua drew many of the mythological figures straight from the cultures they surveyed — much as Gutiérrez drew on existing myth for his 2014 animated film Book of Life — a lot of their character design came from popular movies, television, and video games. That gives a distinct modern edge to the otherwise timeless fantasy setting. Maya’s design, for instance, was influenced by Chun Li from Street Fighter, with a splash of the princess from Battle of the Planets when it came to her warrior armor. Hulking warrior Picchu had elements of Conan the Barbarian. Rooster Wizard Rico, meanwhile, was inspired by Gutiérrez’s favorite artist, Basquiat.
One design, however, really stands out amid all the powerful warriors: the head witch of Rooster Island, Gran Bruja (voiced by Queen Latifah), with her twisting, immensely bulbous, discolored nose. Asked about it during a press tour, Equihua burst into cackling laughter before I even finished asking the question.
“We had such a fight about that!” Equihua laughs.
As it turns out, while Equiha and Gutiérrez collaborated very well together on most of the show, this character’s nose ended up being a source of contention. Exaggerating Bruja’s nose was Gutiérrez’s way of paying homage to two of his biggest influences.
“I’m a big lover of Looney Tunes. And Witch Hazel, the beautifully designed Witch Hazel, has a crazy nose. I love that design. And ‘Gran Brujah’ literally means ‘the big witch,’” explains Gutiérrez. “So when I designed her, I’m like, ‘I’m going to do the biggest, craziest nose I can do.’ I also love Sergio Aragones, and he has a character named Groo. So I basically inspired myself by those two things. I drew her — it was crazy.”
“It was double the size!” Equihua cuts him off. “She was literally dragging it, and I was like, ‘We are not going to do this. We are gonna chop it!’ And I chopped it down one day a little too much. Jorge almost threw my desk at me, he was so angry.” She laughs. “And I was like, ‘You know what, let’s just compromise and go halfway.’”
Ultimately, the person who decided Gran Brujah’s look was the voice actress herself: Queen Latifah.
“I showed it to Queen Latifah and told her the whole story,” recounts Gutiérrez. “And she’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, man, I love this.’”
Maya and the Three is out on Netflix now.