Visually stunning, emotionally poignant, and culturally rich, Maya and the Three is a stellar animated adventure.
This review of Maya and the Three is spoiler-free.
Maya and the Three isn’t for me. And by that, I don’t mean that it isn’t to my tastes, but that it literally isn’t for me. It’s a family-friendly animated adventure steeped in the rich legacy of indigenous cultures, featuring references that aren’t completely alien in their intent but are clearly for the benefit of Spanish speakers and those with intimate ties to the show’s cultural and mythological influences. So, it isn’t for me, a 31-year-old white man from England. But it’s such an exciting, poignant, and heartfelt adventure that it’s really for everyone. No matter your age or background or sensibilities, if you watch one show this weekend, it should probably be Maya and the Three.
Brought to stunningly colorful life from the mind of writer, director, and animator Jorge R. Gutiérrez, this is an epic in every sense of the word, a story of universal themes – family, friends, love, destiny – set against the backdrop of specific cultures, mythologies, and histories. Maya (Zoë Saldana) is a princess of Teca in the old Disney mold, a headstrong firebrand who despises politicking and posturing and would rather take matters into her own hands. Luckily, on the day of her quinceañera, she gets the opportunity to do so when a messenger of the underworld tells her she is due to be sacrificed to the God of War, Lord Mictlan (Alfred Molina). The only way to avert such a fate is to unite the warriors of various neighboring kingdoms.
This recruitment drive is a sublime excuse for Maya and the Three to venture through various kingdoms whose history, architecture, and designs have been influenced by indigenous art and storytelling, from the Aztecs to the Mayans and Incas, through Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu (the representative of the Barbarian tribe, played by Gabriel Iglesias, is literally named Picchu, in case the point wasn’t clear). It’s a good excuse not just for the history buffs to flex but also the artists and animators who bring each realm to life with a unique color palette, aesthetic, and moral lesson. It gives the story’s world a sense of breadth and diversity while also uniting it in shared history and experience.
With everything else of such a high quality, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the voice cast is so impressive. Yet here we are. From my girlfriend chirping, “Is that Zoe Saldana?” in the background, to me laughingly realizing that skeletal archer Chimi is played by Stephanie Beatriz, there’s a compelling game to play here in figuring out who’s playing who. Fledgling wizard Rico (Allen Maldonado) and stern bat god Zatz (Diego Luna) round out the youthful main heroes, while various recognizable voices give life to the story’s elder statesmen, including goddess of the underworld Lady Micte (Kate del Castillo), celestial soothsayer Ah Puch (Rita Moreno), and kindly elders Gran Bruja (Queen Latifah) and Gran Brujo (Wyclef Jean).
You can feel the warmth in the cast, and it translates to the storytelling, which gives a simplistic framework a lot of depth and power by sheer force of will, as well as the references to indigenous cultures and some formal quirks, including an illusion of 3D that is better implemented than most actual 3D effects in the various movies and TV shows I’ve had to wear cardboard glasses to sit through. It’s an impressive piece of work, this, both in terms of how expertly it utilizes familiar ideas and themes and how well it marries them with novelty and specificity. It’s organic, meaningful representation without tokenism or pandering, and a new family-friendly adventure that’ll possibly go down with the genre’s greats.