After years in development behind the scenes, Book of Life director and animator Jorge R. Gutiérrez is finally back, this time with a fantastical adventure epic set in a Mesoamerican-inspired world. A nine-episode series billed as an “animated event” (a fancy way of saying it’s a complete story rather than the opening season of an ongoing series) Maya and the Three sparked when Netflix asked Guitérrez to pitch an idea that he couldn’t produce anywhere else — and he came back with a vivid fantasy epic about a Mesoamerican warrior princess saving the world.
While Maya and the Three’s plot structure gives it a slightly repetitive start, the dynamic, gorgeous visuals bolster the drawn-out fight sequences, making them brilliantly eye-catching. By the time all the pieces come together, Gutiérrez imbues the show with nuanced approaches to death and defeat, coloring the experience into something memorable.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight setup spoilers for Maya and the Three.]
In the opening episode of Maya and the Three, warrior princess Maya (Zoe Saldaña) learns that Lord Mictlan, the god of war (Alfred Molina), wishes to sacrifice her for power — and if she doesn’t surrender to him, he’ll attack and destroy her whole kingdom. Determined to save her land (and also not get sacrificed), Maya embarks on a quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy by seeking out three great warriors. The only problem? Each of the warriors — goofy Rooster Wizard Rico (Allen Maldonado), aloof hermit archer Chimi (Stephanie Beatriz), and simple-minded, bulky warrior Picchu (Gabriel Iglesias) — is battling their own internal demons. Nevertheless, Maya and the three journey to the gates of the Underworld to stop the gods from destroying humanity.
The episodes in the first half of Maya and the Three follow a similar formula, almost to a T: Maya wants to recruit a new warrior from an allied kingdom, so she journeys there, discovers the candidate she thought would fit the role is not the right one, finds out that some outcast is actually the person she’s seeking, and convinces that person to accompany her. Each time, the outcast warrior is hesitant about joining Maya, but each time, after facing some of the underworld gods, the new warrior wholeheartedly joins up with Maya’s cause. The structure is repetitive, but the joy comes in the unique aesthetic look of each of the lands, as well as the cool designs and powers of not just the heroes, but the gods they face in battle.
The distinct character designs — which seamlessly translate into how each character moves and fights — make the individual action scenes unique. Maya wields a giant glowing sword, so she needs to jump into close-up action, but Chimi, who was raised by animals, stalks from a distance to strike with her bow. Each god has their own fighting style, dependent on their respective domains, and when they appear on screen for the first time, it’s with a brightly colored title card, announcing them like they’re superheroes or special guest stars.
It feels like a distinctly modern touch to the otherwise historical setting, and waiting to see the next adversary’s little announcement turns into a fun experience, since their announcement will be bold and flashy. For instance, at one point Maya and her friends face the Goddess of Gators (Rosie Perez), who can transform herself into a giant alligator — and separately transform her various limbs into snapping gator-heads. She’s just one of the many gods in the impressive pantheon, which also features the voice talents of Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Diego Luna, and Kate del Castillo, among others.
Thankfully, the show takes a unique turn in the latter third, subverting a lot of expectations of heroic fantasy epics, at least when it comes to most animated shows and movies made in America. For one thing, there are plenty of moments where Maya and her friends fail at their goals, because they’re a group of young adults up against mighty, powerful gods. Maya and the Three handles defeat and death in ways that feel unique to the American animation canon. Death still isn’t posited as a solely happy occurrence, but much like Book of Life or Pixar’s Coco, Maya and the Three examines it with nuance, treating it as something other than a simple end of life.
Maya and the Three’s startling ending makes sense for all the characters involved. Their quest doesn’t entirely resolve as they expected, and their victories come with meaningful costs. But those outcomes are natural evolutions of who the heroes are, and how their personal and shared journeys have gone. The show builds up to the most epic battle of all in the last episode, with equal weight given to triumphant moments and heartfelt sacrifices. The final conflict adds more depth to the heroic journey Maya undertakes, given how that quest is colored with loss and reflection as well. Start watching Maya and the Three for the action-packed and visually creative fights, but stay for the poignant character arcs that build up to a satisfying ending.
Maya and the Three is out on Netflix now.