I don’t know where to start with Maya and the Three. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s so emotionally and epically good—even if I have complicated feelings about one theme. The mini-series is created and directed by Jorge R. Gutiérrez and tells its story over nine episodes. The series also stars a stacked cast of voice actors including: Zoe Saldaña, Gabriel Iglesias, Allen Maldonado, Stephanie Beatriz, Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal, Alfred Molina, Kate del Castillo, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Rosie Perez, Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, Sandra Equihua, Isabela Merced, Chelsea Rendon, Joaquín Cosio, Carlos Alazraqui, Eric Bauza, and Rita Moreno. Read those names again. Just wow.
In the fantastical world, where magic turns the world and four kingdoms (Teca, Luna Island, the Jungle Lands, and the Barbarian Kingdom) rule the lands, a brave and rebellious warrior princess named Maya is set for her 15th birthday. A coming of age story steeped in mythology, the gods of the underworld arrive at Maya’s birthday ceremony and announce that Maya’s life is forfeit to the God of War, Mictlan.
Paying the price for her family’s secret past, Maya must give herself up lest the gods punish Teca with their vengeance. To save her family, she turns to a prophecy that says a group of four warriors will save her people from the gods. In a typical hero’s journey, Maya embarks on a quest that takes her through breathtaking lands and pits her against gorgeously animated gods.
The world of Maya and the Three has me at an impasse. On one hand, the series brings together Aztec, Maya, Inca, and Arawak cultures. It’s storytelling with myths and gods not often in the spotlight. This is vital, as stories focused on Mesoamerican history are few and far between while other mythologies like Greek and Norse remain the center of many stories.
It can not be understated how gorgeously animated every single frame of this series is. From beautiful brown skin to breathtaking armor and accented make-up, there is a beauty and love put into the series that I have been waiting to see for so long. Every hair on a character’s head and beard is carefully crafted to showcase features I know. Additionally, in the reds, the golds, and the teals, there is a beauty in this animation that I don’t believe any Netflix animated series has achieved before. It’s hyper-stylized and gorgeous, and an effort that feels herculean. The scale and development of the world is ambitious and something that should be applauded.
In addition to its beauty, the character design of Maya and the Three is so incredibly strong. Not a single character is like the one before it and the gods each have a grandeur that embody their patronage in a creative way. While not all the gods see dynamic character development, their places in the story are undeniable— from the emo boyfriend Zatz (Diego Luna) to the strong warrior goddesses like Cipactli (Rosie Perez) and the lovable himbos like Cipactli’s husband Cabrkan (Danny Trejo).
And stunning animation isn’t everything, the story carries its own weight. Starting with Maya, each and every hero brought together is someone who is an outcast, and surprisingly, Maya is the most well-off of all of them. For her part, Maya comes from a loving family, but she is held back by her gender and status as the youngest sibling. So much so that she abhors being called princesa.
Each character represents a specific culture. With Maya you see the Aztec, Rico is representative of the Arawak, Chimi is Maya, and finally, Picchu is representative of the Inca. With unique character designs and personalities, every member of the quartet on the quest has a story to tell on their own as well as with each other. While this is a coming-of-age story for Maya, every single character finds themself and makes Maya and the Three a story with emotion, heart, and of course, impact. And with Chimi, we see the importance of a “sugar skull” beyond just its beauty but as an homage to the goddess of death, Lady Micte.
But even while representing different identities and cultures is a cornerstone of the series we have to set expectations. Maya and the Three isn’t here to tell or showcase Indigenous cultures beyond gods and aesthetics, it’s here to showcase a memory of our Indigenous ancestors through the fantasy world of Teca, Luna Island, the Jungle Lands, and the Barabarian Kingdom. And, if you don’t know these cultures, you don’t know they’re present as the series doesn’t tell you, instead opting to use fictional lands as stand-ins. The issue here is that this continues a practice of making Indigenous cultures and people into myths instead of a people that still exist.
While Spanish being spoken in the series is a great piece of representation I wish I had when I was a child, there is something jarring about seeing an Indigenous culture speaking the language of their colonizer in a story that happens pre-colonization. While the harmful nature of privileging Spanish in stories about Indigenous cultures of Latin America is its own article, it has to be pointed out.
While the Spanish is jarring for a Mesoamerican story, as a narrative element I can see its importance. It’s a connective tissue that binds the four kingdoms, each of which showcases different cultural backgrounds. For example the Luna Island which is home to the brujas and brujos of Maya and the Three is influenced by the Arawaks and features Black characters who speak Spanish (and some French). This may seem small, but often pan-Latin narratives erase Afro-Latin communities while championing mestizaje. And it’s for that reason that I can’t knock the use of Spanish entirely, even if it feels off.
That said, another one of the issues with the series is less about the story itself, and more about the captioning. In a story that has chosen to center Spanish as much as it does, seeing captioning that reads “[counting down in Spanish]” or “[yells in Spanish]” is a disservice to the storytelling that Gutierrez and team are trying to complete by showcasing Spanish as a unifier across the many cultures on display. A disappointing fact when Netflix is also home to the wonderfully captioned bilingual series Seis Manos.
Finally, there are many references in Maya and the Three that span pop culture. From an Akira motorcycle slide to a line from The Smiths (Rico saying “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die” is a call out to all the goth Latinx folks that just works), there is a lot to spot in the mini-series. In fact, it’s the little details in Maya and the Three that pull it all together in a way that raises it from strong to epic.
Even with its faults, every color choice, every song choice, every reference, and Maya’s grito, it all comes together into the one of the best all-ages animated series that has ever come to Netflix.
Maya and the Three is streaming now on Netflix.
Maya and the Three
Even with its faults, every color choice, every song choice, every reference, and Maya’s grito, it all comes together into the best all-ages animated series that has come to Netflix.