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Maya And The Three (2021)


Fans of 2014's The Book Of Life have had a lengthy wait for a follow up from director Jorge Guitterez. In the intervening years, Guitterez has completed a VR Google Stories short Son Of Jaguar and been attached to a number of projects (including a LEGO Movie spin-off) that sadly never came to fruition. Eventually, he landed at Netflix where he set up his dream project Maya And Three.

Returning as both writer and director, Guitterez's new opus arrives not as a movie, but as what Netflix are describing as a 'limited event series' spanning nine chapters, Guiterrez re-teamed with Book Of Life scribe Doug Langdale for the screenplay, alongside Mafer Hernandez, Candie Langsdale and Silvia Olivas. The series was produced by Netflix Animation with Mexopolis, Maya Entertainment and the now sadly defunct Tangent Animation.

In a fantasy world inspired by Mesoamerica,  on the day of her fifteenth birthday (QuinceaƱera) Maya is due to be crowned as a princess of her kingdom, Teca. However, her coronation is interrupted by the arrival of an emissary of the gods, announcing that Maya is to be sacrificed to the God Of War- or their whole world will be destroyed. When it becomes clear that they are not going to be able to take on the gods alone, Maya sets off on a quest to assemble three mythical warriors to fulfil the prophecy and save the world.

Maya And The Three instantly distinguishes itself with its setting. Mesoamerica before the arrival of the conquistadors is a part of world history that many are aware of but is rarely tackled in fiction, which ensures it feels fresh from the get-go. There's literally thousands of years of culture to draw on and a rich history of mythology to explore. Guitterez celebrated Mexico's traditions in The Book Of Life, travelling to the Land Of The Dead sometime before Coco, but in Maya he really steps it up a gear.

The world of the series is instantly captivating. The story kicks off in a vast city full of pyramids and other impressive structures. We've all seen cities like this as they appear today, as ruins. But here they teem with life: children play ballgames in the streets, an eagle (or is it a condor?) flies overhead, and crowds gather to see their princess crowned.

Guiterrez's work has one of the most distinctive styles in western animation. The CG animation, as in with his earlier film has a look more akin to stop-motion than other digitally animated projects. This is partly through the array of different textures, which give everything a kind of physicality to it. You feel as if you could reach out and touch it, even though it only exists inside a computer.

The character designs are highly distinctive, full of straight lines and geometric shapes. There's a lovely contrast between the King- a mountain of a man- and his beloved wife and daughter. The designs, and in fact the whole look of the series, is inspired by mesoamerican artwork found carved in ruins and relics. Each of the kingdoms Maya visits has an individual style- as do their people. Meanwhile, the look of the gods is distinguished from the humans, with much of their appearance modelled on Mexican Dia de Los Muertos decorations and costumes- the God Of War's face for example appears to be based on a skull motif. It also includes the bright colours that are associated with the celebration, often in the form of bright glowing lights. 

There are also a number of sections (such as flashbacks) that are presented in 2D animation. These are similarly fantastic and also feature a variation on a similar art style.


As well as the influence of both modern and historical Mexican and Latin-American culture, it also shows influences from Guiterrez's other pop-culture loves. A touch of anime here (for example speed-lines) some western animation influences there, a bit taken from kung-fu movies here or from westerns there, this feels like a glorious mix of ingredients from around the world. Fantasy is also a major influence, with Guiterrez describing it as a "funny Mexican Lord Of The Rings".

The word 'epic' has been mentioned a lot in descriptions of Maya And The Three, and that definitely feels appropriate. Make no mistake, although this is made for the small screen this still feels thoroughly cinematic, and the production values are equal to most recent animated cinema releases. You typically would expect a budgetary difference between a theatrical and TV release- look at the difference between DreamWorks's film and television work for example. Here there are no apparent limitations and the whole thing just feels... big.


This is true not only in the larger than life characters but also in the spectacular action set-pieces. All the action here is expertly choreographed and kinetic. The climactic battles are jaw-droppingly massive,  easily some of the most ambitious ever attempted in animation, on the big screen or small. Frequently, the action spills out the edge of the frame, appearing as if outside the 'letterbox' of the picture, creating a sort of 3D effect. This is only part of the visual inventiveness on display here- the use of split-screens, x-rays and other editing effects make everything feel lively and exciting. The introduction of each of the Gods with an onscreen caption is also a fun touch.

Despite the historical setting, this is a very modern series. One thing that perhaps grounds this is the now, is the character of Maya herself. Our heroine has no intention of being a well behaved and docile princess- she idolises her warrior brothers and secretly sneaks out to take place in underground battles. She's a very modern character who is allowed to grow into a true warrior as the series progresses. But she is easy to warm to from the start.

Other characters are similarly likeable.  Maya's father- King Teca- in particular, is a lot of fun, a boisterous, imposing bear of a man, who retains a sense of childlike joy (appropriately enough, voiced by the director himself). This is part of the reason that her mother is forced often into the role of "bad cop", but it obviously comes from a place of love and a desire to protect her. There's a real sense of warmth in the early family scenes, and the dynamic between Maya, the King and The Three Jaguars (her brothers) is a definite highlight.

Each of "the three" is also a distinctive and memorable character. Simple but lovable Barbarian Puccha, quirky and nervous wizard Ricco and fierce and wild warrior Chimi, they are all enjoyable additions to the cast.

The series is completely unapologetic in its Latin cultural routes and doesn't compromise in an attempt to make things easier for international audiences. The voice cast is almost entirely of Latin-American origin- Zoe Saldana as Maya is joined by stars including Stephanie Beatriz, Danny Trejo, Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Cheech Marin and Gabriel Iglesias. The script is full of untranslated Spanish words and phrases, but it's usually understandable in context. It's not "dumbed down" just because it's targeting a family audience, either.

All these elements help give it a very distinctive feel that we rarely have seen in a US animation before. Yet despite all of that, many of the themes and ideas within it feel universal and easy to connect with, whatever your background may be.

Tonally, Maya And The Three walks a fascinating tightrope.  There are definitely more serious moments, and if anything these work even better for being surrounded by comedy. With its themes of gods and the underworld, it also has sequences that are designed to be spooky, and maybe a little scary for younger viewers, It's a story with real stakes (not everybody makes it to the end) and emotional moments too. More than anything though, it's frequently very funny.

You would be forgiven for wondering what makes this a 'limited event series' as opposed to just a straightforward series. It's true that at nine episodes, it has almost as many instalments as a regular Netflix series (Inside Job, launched on the same day has 10). It does however feel more like one big story, like a single movie split into chunks (around 30 minutes each with an extended finale) and it's very tempting to devour them all in one sitting. The story could have worked well enough as a single movie, but by adopting this format it gives it time to unfold at its own pace.

Every now and again a series or movie comes along that feels like it is the thing that its creator was destined to make. Maya And The Three is such a series. The Book Of Life certainly had its following and retains a passionate fanbase to this day but this feels like Guiterrez's masterwork and cements him as a truly unique voice and talent in animation.

 


 FORMAT: LIMITED SERIES AVAILABLE ON:  STREAMING  FROM: NETFLIX RATING: PG RUNNING TIME : 9  eps, Times Vary
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IN A NUTSHELL: Overflowing with wit, visual inventiveness and thrilling set-pieces, Maya And The Three is really something special.

★★★★★



 



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