With every passing episode of “Maya and the Three,” I grew more and more annoyed that there wouldn’t immediately be a “Maya and the Three” video game to play the second it was done. I haven’t played a video game in years, but something about its dense, colorful world of mythic gods and warriors makes it all too easy — and downright fun — to imagine disappearing headlong into it. From “The Book of Life” director Jorge R. Gutiérrez, Netflix’s “Maya and the Three” is a sprawling, ambitious animated series that seizes every chance it gets to reveal new layers of storytelling and technical craft.
The series begins typically enough for a fairy tale, with a rebellious young princess named Maya (voiced by Zoe Saldana) resisting her parents’ urging to become more of a “diplomat” than the fighter she not-so-secretly longs to be. When she learns the truth of her heritage and her part in a prophecy to save the human world from the most nefarious gods, she sets off on a pilgrimage to fulfill her destiny. While the setup feels familiar, though, the setting is anything but for a television project of this scale. With “Maya and the Three,” Gutiérrez, production designer Paul Sullivan, and art director Gerald de Jesus create a world that draws from cultures across the Mesoamerican diaspora, imbuing this particular tale of misfits making a noble pilgrimage with a history and timbre all its own. The series also recruits an impressive array of talent to voice its characters, including Alfred Molina as the almighty God of War, Rosie Perez as the deadpan Goddess of Gators, Diego Luna as a brooding underworld emissary, and an especially delightful Rita Moreno as an ever-watchful and mischievous spirit.
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As Maya travels the world and finds true friends in orphan wizard Rico (Allen Maldonado), teddy bear warrior Picchu (Gabriel Iglesias), and feral archer with a heart of gold Chimi (Stephanie Beatriz), they all learn not just how to become better fighters, but more complete people altogether. Though Maya suffers devastating tragedies before setting off on her journey, it’s the flashback to Rico’s lonely childhood that makes plain how much deeper the show is willing to go with characters and motifs that easily could have remained two-dimensional. Rico could have just been the panicky source of comic relief, an all too familiar role for any sidekick character (and one Maldonado voices with ease). Instead, knowing his backstory provides crucial context for his self-deprecation that pays off with rich dividends down the line as their interwoven stories get more complex. It’s a mark of how well Rico, Chimi and Picchu are rendered — as physical characters, with smart vocal performances, and distinct narratives of traumas past — that Maya’s “Three” quickly become co-leads in their own right. (This holds especially true for Beatriz’s Chimi, whose compelling arc and undeniable magnetism often overshadows Maya’s, a fact the reclusive Chimi would undoubtedly detest.)
Though Gutierréz has referred to “Maya and the Three” as essentially “one big movie,” its “quest meets obstacles” structure thankfully makes it work well — and I’d daresay better — on an episodic level. I’m also clearly not the only one who got video game vibes, as the series sets up most every encounter Maya and her friends have with nefarious gods like a “Mortal Kombat” fight, complete with freeze frames introducing each character and the imminent battle ahead. The pattern of episodes stopping dead for an all-out gods versus humans brawl inevitably gets predictable and a bit repetitive, to the point where even Rico complains that they can’t seem to go a single day without one. By and large, though, each fight is distinct to the landscape and gods involved, from the God of Earthquakes (Danny Trejo) rumbling a rocky terrain to a motley crew of trickster gods alternating punches with disorienting illusions.
In its most basic iteration, “Maya and the Three” could have been a cute enough story of a plucky girl who saves the world. What a treat, then, to watch as the show digs deeper, reaches farther, and takes bigger leaps to explore more complicated terrain. It’s an epic, in all senses of the word, with a palpable love for its world that proves hard to resist.
“Maya and the Three” premieres Friday, Oct. 22, on Netflix.
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