'Maya and the Three' Is a Mesoamerican 'Lord of the Rings'-Style Animated Fantasy Epic

Netflix's new miniseries joyously reminds us of the infinite possibilities with the medium of animation.

maya and the three
Netflix

Between Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, fantasy has become a genre synonymous with European folklore, medieval castles, and white knights. The Netflix animated eventMaya and the Three imagines the camera going south to show what is happening at the same time in Mesoamerica, telling a similar story of warriors, princesses, gods, and the end of the world, but through a lens that we haven't seen before at this scale. The result is an animated fantasy epic that is both familiar and fresh. Don't be mistaken by the vibrant animation and the kid-oriented rating, as there is enough thrilling action, shocking deaths, mature subjects, and references to everything from anime to Kurosawa to satisfy even hardcore genre fans.

Set in a time of gods and prophecies, the world is divided between four Meriamerican lands. There's the Aztec-inspired kingdom of Teca, the magical and Caribbean-like Luna Island (literally a floating city on a moon), the Jungle Lands with their pyramids inspired by the Mayans, and the fearsome Golden Mountains, a clear reference to the Incan capital of Machu Picchu. Out of the bat, writer/director Jorge R. Gutiérrez makes his Mesoamerican world a feast for the eyeballs. Each of the four lands is visually distinct, vibrant and full of details in ways few live-action blockbusters are, mixing indigenous art with modern sensibilities to create a world that is rooted in history and exudes culture, but still feels new and fantastical. Even after nine episodes and four-and-a-half hours, there simply isn't enough time to take in the world of Maya.

maya and the three
Netflix

Zoe Saldana voices Maya, a Tecan warrior princess about to be sacrificed to the God of War on her quinceañera, until she decides to take destiny into her own hands and rewrite the prophecy. And so she embarks on a quest to find three mighty warriors from across the lands in order to defeat the gods and save humankind before it's too late. The story follows plenty of familiar fantasy tropes, with the forming of the fellowship guiding the first act, but it helps that Gutiérrez gives each character a complex and relatable backstory that makes us care for them as they go to literal Hell and back. Indeed, Maya and the Three may be structured like a fantasy trilogy like Lord of the Rings, but it's formatted like a miniseries, with every three episodes comprising their own mini-movie, complete with a teaser for the next arc. Each episode also starts with a cold open that explores the characters and what made them outcasts in their own communities, as well as expands on the mythology of the world and what happened right before the story began.

Of course, this being a fantasy epic, there's bound to be tons of action, and Maya and the Three more than delivers on that front. With dynamic camera movements and fluid animation, you haven't seen battle sequences like this since the Battle of Helms Deep. What makes Maya stand out, however, is the way Gutiérrez and studio Tangent Animation play with aspect ratio and the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen to create the illusion of a 3D image. Arrows fly out of the screen, characters grow so large in their self-confident that they cannot be contained by the black bars anymore, and when the villain pops up in their full might, the screen expands to show how he's in control of the image. Not since Into the Spider-Verse has a mainstream American animated project played with the very format of animation so effective, but Maya and the Three reminds us of the infinite possibilities with the medium.

maya and the three
Netflix

Though the world of Maya is full of references to history and the real Mesoamerican mythology, Gutiérrez also adds his own flavor to it to create something new. Aztecs and Incas fight together against Vikings, zombie conquistadors and pirates also join the party for a thrilling battle, and don't even get me started on the giant mechas made of stone—there are plenty of anime references for fans to catch. What makes it all work is the way the series grounds its fantastical elements in its Latinidad. It helps that Maya and the Three boasts an impressive cast of Latinx talent, from Rita Moreno and Rosie Perez to Diego Luna and Danny Trejo, and includes Spanish words and phrases from all over Latin America, as well as different accents, skin tones, and body types that show the diversity of the Latinx diaspora. The series even uses the "Sana, sana, colita de rana" as a healing spell, a phrase that translates directly to "heal, heal, little frog’s tail" in English, but makes the story feel like it truly came from Latin America.

Maya and the Three is an action-packed, emotional, relatable, at times breathtaking fantasy epic with a sense of cultural authenticity that makes its world feel both familiar and completely new. Whether you're a fan of gorgeous animation, thrilling fantasy epics, or just extremely bingeable shows about family, destiny and believing in yourself, this is one of the best animated titles of the year.

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Rafael Motamayor is a contributor to Thrillist.