‘Maya and the Three’ Review: Zoe Saldana Voices a Fierce Latina Heroine in Animated Netflix Series

Animator Jorge R. Gutiérrez’s epic quest is both narratively and visually arresting

maya and the three

The colorful work of writer, director and animator Jorge R. Gutiérrez stands out in the crowded animated field. His distinctive hyperbolic and maximalist style resembles few others in his cohort. Yet, project after project, from the series “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera” to “The Book of Life,” Gutiérrez continues to push his style to new heights, giving each project a look of its own. Some signature characteristics carry over as a nod to his past work, but each story has its own array of color schemes, details and dimensions. Gutiérrez’s latest, “Maya and the Three” is another step in the evolution of his style. The Netflix limited series is rich in textures, patterns, and yes, bold hues that seem to pop off the screen. “Maya and the Three ” makes an epic story out of love, family, friendship, honor, and fighting for what you believe. 

Maya (Zoë Saldana) is a wayward princess similar in spirit to Merida from Pixar’s “Brave.” She hates the fancy dresses, the responsibilities of diplomacy and would much rather scrap with bigger opponents in a local fight club. But on the day of her quinceañera, a messenger from the underworld tells her that she is to be sacrificed to the God of War. Her family and kingdom rally around her, but after a devastating battle with significant casualties, Maya must reinterpret an old prophecy that could tell her how to defeat the murderous god by uniting with other warriors from neighboring kingdoms.  

The epic quest that follows is both narratively and visually arresting. Each kingdom calls a distinct landscape home, and each realm comes with a backstory and life lesson to learn. All of the animation, character designs and backgrounds are rooted in indigenous art and ancient artifacts, which in Gutiérrez’s vision, provide a wealth of opportunities to create and remix various influences.

In Maya’s home of Teca, red is one of the area’s dominant colors, and the land borrows styles, designs and lore from Aztec culture. On the magical moon-based world of Luna Island, blue, green and purple tones take over in a nod to the Caribbean islands. The skull-painted and emerald green clad warriors of the Jungle Lands live in a place inspired by Mayan Pyramids of Chichen Itza. The Golden Mountains of the earthen toned barbarian tribe is a reference to the Inca city of Machu Picchu, and its fearless warrior is even named Picchu. On the surface, “Maya and the Three” may focus on the group dynamics of young warriors fighting against evil gods, but it’s also a show about unity and the power that comes from helping each other through the allegory of a pan-Latin American alliance. 

One of the biggest bonuses of “Maya and the Three” is the stacked voice cast. Saldana does a great job running through the confusion, pain and determination of the show’s main character. The three warriors who join her on her quest include a wizard coming into his powers named Rico (Allen Maldonado), a fierce but tragically misunderstood archer named Chimi (Stephanie Beatriz) and a gentle but strong giant named Picchu (Gabriel Iglesias). Diego Luna voices the bat prince Zatz, who becomes a rather prominent figure in Maya’s story, and Gael García Bernal pitches in as the voices of her triplet older brothers, all of whom are jaguar warriors.

There’s a cavalcade of gods, goddesses, and mysterious and gifted spirits like Lady Micte (Kate del Castillo), Lord Mictlan (Alfred Molina), Ah Puch (Rita Moreno), Gran Bruja (Queen Latifah), and Gran Brujo (Wyclef Jean). Voices from Danny Trejo, Rosie Perez, Cheech Marin, Chelsea Rendon, Eric Bauza, Carlos Alazraqui, and Joaquín Cosio can be heard from the mouths of other gods in the series, making it a lively game of recognizing who’s playing who on-screen. 

The series’ feel-good messages may be great for younger viewers, but can feel a bit simplistic for older audiences. The repeated affirmation, “If it is to be, it is up to me,” gets a lot of play in the show’s run, which may start to feel repetitive. Although “Maya and the Three” may not break any new ground when it comes to building a show around a headstrong girl uniting separate factions a la “The Legend of Korra,” iGutiérrez’s animation makes the series unique. His incorporation of new ideas while paying tribute to ancient indigenous art and culture may pique others’ interest in the past or at least celebrate the attention paid to present day representation, incorporating characters of different skin tones and body shapes, or just enjoy the adventure for the rollicking story it tells.

Just as the show heavily references indigenous cultures, it also includes callbacks to movies like “The Warriors” and “Indiana Jones.” There are moments when characters and action spill off the screen into the black widescreen bars at the top and bottom of the image, creating the illusion of a 3D image leaping off the screen. The series uses Spanish words as bonus references that don’t seem offputting to those don’t know the language. Similarly, the slips in cultural references clearly meant to appeal to Spanish speakers — like an animated rendition of “Sana, sana, colita de rana,” a healing phrase often said by caregivers to a wounded or ailing child for comfort. 

The story of “Maya and the Three” may seem familiar, but its creators took strides to create a unique world aimed at historically underrepresented Latinx viewers by centering voices from our communities, adding in a language many (but not all of us) speak, portraying us as onscreen heroes and paying homage to our countries’ ancient stories and art. In this sense, “Maya and the Three” is not playing representation for representation’s sake, but actually creating something that feels organically from the culture.

Netflix will launch “Maya and the Three” on October 22.