I’m still not sure how to feel about Maya and the Three. On the one hand, in terms of quality, it’s absolutely on the upper end of Netflix original animation. Even if it doesn’t rival the masterful artistry of something like Hilda, it’s still absolutely a cut above Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, and it’s miles ahead of the likes of The Hollow. Maya has solid characters—something a lot of shows, Netlfix or not, honestly lack—and that carries it through its narrative hiccups pretty resoundingly. In storytelling, good characters cover over a multitude of sins, and Maya honestly doesn’t have many to cover over, at that.
For those uninitiated, Maya is one of Netflix’s latest animated offerings: A princess-driven, adventure-fantasy story set in a world inspired by the cultures of Central and South America (and the Caribbean). In one breath, it feels very familiar; to Disney princess fans, and fans of broader sword-and-sorcery, party-based fantasy narratives; and in the other, entirely unlike anything I’ve ever seen. While I cannot speak personally to how it channels Latin American culture and historical aesthetics (as a white trash Autistic guy who’s too faceblind to notice ethnicity half the time, I feel uniquely unqualified to comment on such complicated matters), it’s clearly a labour of love by creator Jorge R. Gutiérrez. You can’t say there’s anything else that looks like it, visually (more on its actual stylization later), and personally, I’m all for myth-mining broad continental cultural intersections to create unique settings and ideas. While I’ve certainly heard people complain that Avatar: Last Airbender’s aesthetic was “vaguely Asia,” if Tangled’s setting could be, “vaguely Europe,” why not Asia and Latin America, too? Maybe I’m just an American, but I say, the more myths the merrier. White cultures shouldn’t be the only ones we can mix and mythologize.
Its aesthetic and cultural influences aside, Maya is a unique narrative enterprise. It frequently flirts with what one might call, “subversion inversion,” which is to say, it teases a popular subversion of a still-older trope, and then jerks back, with a slightly knowing smile, and plays the trope straight. Or it plays it straight right out of the gate, and hangs a winking lampshade on it, without actually trying to cheapen the weight. The result is, funnily enough, actually refreshing. Whenever you expect a fake-out, a softened blow, or a sarcastic grin, there is… Just the story, standing there shamelessly, daring you to question it for taking the route that was narratively telegraphed in the first place. Maya isn’t trying to be clever, it’s trying to be brilliant, and throw a lot of character and empathy at the screen while it’s at it, and, for the most part, it succeeds.
As an example: A lot of princess fiction finds its narrative of empowerment purely through the subversion of every possible instruction given to the protagonist. If we’re told to do something, with almost no exceptions, we will not be doing that something. We’ve had a veritable conga-line of rebel princesses, to whom every parent, guide, or guru has been nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome. Moana was notable for inverting this popular subversion to a certain degree—Moana’s grandmother is the one who gives her The Quest—but it still felt the need to pad itself with a dash of modernity by having her embark on it against the will of her parents. At least in Moana there are no parental fatalities (unlike many, many other Disney movies I could mention).
Maya shrugs off this popular subversion almost effortlessly. Not only are Maya’s parents fully-realized, dimensional characters with backstory and personalties that play off one another (along with, in fact, every other couple in the series, creating a startling variety of pairings and dynamics that frankly left me dizzy at the drought of well-developed couples in other fiction), but they are, most often, at least mostly right. They are King and Queen, after all, and they’ve been doing this job for awhile. Even on the rare occasion when they’re wrong, they’re usually wrong for the right reasons, or more right than wrong. In other words, they are actual, reliable guides—actual parents, with a role in the plot—something most popular adventure fiction couldn’t juggle even with extra hands.
So Maya isn’t subversive; not, at least, in the popular fashion. But it is very often original, even when it’s playing close to tradition.
After all, in the same breath that this is a story about family, it’s also a story where we leave from home on a quest, and gather a band of adventurers, and try to save the world. It is, in its broad strokes, truer to the pattern of traditional fantasy than most stories you see. That being said, personally, I feel the so-called “standard,” fantasy narrative of going around in an adventuring party to complete a quest is underserved. It’s one of those things everyone calls cliché, so no one ever uses it, so actually seeing it is, well… Pretty rare, and it comes across as oddly original, as consequence.
And it’s a traditional format for a reason: It works. I haven’t seen an adventure party be played this straight since Airbender, and, as a big fan of Dungeons and Dragons, and that sort of storytelling in general, it’s genuinely a delight. I sometimes think fantasy suffers for being perceived as mainstream—science fiction more often gets away with retreading traditional narrative formats (Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5 being an extreme example of the same pattern being used twice to very different effect) because it’s seen as more niche, whereas fantasy is always being called upon to reinvent itself to please modern fashion.
Maya’s strongest moments come from this motley crew dynamic, and, as any D&D fan will tell you, what makes the adventure party format so interesting is the vast array of characters you can put into it, and the uniqueness they can infuse into its archetypes. I can’t say I’ve met anyone in a cartoon before quite like Maya’s companions, and it’s absolutely the series’ adventure structure—and the classic archetypes it uses as a shorthand to jump off onto more original ground—that gives it the most opportunities to develop them. While it still suffers a little from the post-Marvel, “We’re putting together a team,” effect—that our characters join up because we’re putting together a team, principally, and less so because of circumstances or who they are personally—it pulls it off better than any Marvel fair. It helps it’s played out over several episodes, so we get more cumulative time learning about characters after they’re introduced, and aren’t just stuck with their initial defining character moments and a few later quips.
I only wish we got more time with the characters, especially after the whole party gets together. Maya spends most of its runtime assembling its team or explaining their backstories, and then stumbles directly into its climax.
Maya’s biggest struggle is one of structure, which is—finally—what leaves me with mixed feelings about it. Jorge R. Gutiérrez has described Maya as a, ”giant movie broken up in chunks,” and while, on the surface, I’m quick to welcome any sort of structural innovations brought to animation (which largely followed the same structure in America for decades), I’m not convinced it works in this particular case. Maya is literally broken up into chunks—so much so that episodes often don’t end, they simply bleed. They reach a clear ending, a chapter’s close, and then just continue on without stopping, bleeding into the next episode’s territory before it actually starts, sometimes so literally that, when the next episode finally comes, the last moments of the previous are replayed, shot for shot. It’s like watching an egregiously long film while repeatedly blacking out. Every possible ending or satisfying conclusion is undercut by an unnecessary couple of minutes that drags you into yet another thread at the last second, which won’t get picked up until after next episode’s opening flashback, at which point we’ll have forgotten enough of this brand new conflict that it’ll have to replay the high points to catch us back up, anyway.
I’ll be honest, it’s an odd choice, and definitely results in Maya’s biggest weakness: That it isn’t a TV show. It has everything it needs to be one, even an unusually good one—great characters, a fascinating world, and story beats that more often land than fall flat—but it isn’t one. It’s a sort of mini-series, a thing that exists awkwardly, adolescently between film and TV. And, while its characters tease stirring depth, and are given time to explore it further than most films would allow, I was ultimately left with less satisfaction than a good film would’ve given me. In the end, it feels more like a vertical slice or a pitch reel than a true mini-series: we have just enough time to learn how interesting these characters could be, and then it’s over. Characters develop as fast as they need to, and despite their depth, make progress or changes that would warrant seasons of dedicated storytelling (the ease with which one character rebounds from one love interest to another feels particularly egregious, especially because the characters otherwise feel so real and compelling). Sometimes, in the immortal words of Crow T. Robot, “it needs TV,” and regrettably, in this case, it didn’t get it.
But it’s not just a matter of structural slicing and dicing, unfortunately. Maya has bigger structural problems—nothing egregious, or necessarily uncommon, for Netflix animation—but problems nonetheless. Like a lot of original Netflix animations, its narrative occasionally suffers from a certain hiccupy quality, a problem in the pacing. Multiple times I stopped and wondered if I’d missed a line of dialogue, because the script had just needed that extra pass or two, and hadn’t gotten it. The characters turned too fast from A to D, and I was left wondering where the intervening plot beat had gone.
This is compounded by the rushed crunch of its second or third act (which is hard to identify, as each episode has about five acts, on average, and the season as a whole is a bit all over the place, in its pacing), which suffers from a bit of unnecessary drama thrown in at the last second, as a sort of third act misunderstanding. It begins to make a little more sense, after multiple episodes unpack the lore behind the debacle, and I’m sure it was perfectly clear in the imagination of Mr. Gutiérrez and his writers, but at the time I was just left feeling confused why everyone was so mad at Maya. It feels more like something that happens because it was a bullet point, and not because it has anything to do with the story. Mercifully, it has no meaningful impact on the plot, so it’s comparatively easy to ignore once you’re through it, but that only further brings into question why it’s there in the first place. We get so little time with these characters, why waste it with them fighting over something that doesn’t matter to us? Especially when, in the end, their anger doesn’t impact their choices?
I suspect the culprit of this peculiarity is another artifact of Maya’s limbo status between movie and series: I only see three writers credited on its IMDB page. A small enough group that, if they were deeply immersed in this story and its world (which clearly exists with laudable vividness and realization in Mr. Gutiérrez’s mind), they wouldn’t question the logic of a conflict only they understood the stakes of. It’s a case of theory of the audience’s mind: The writers forget we don’t know what they know, so the emotional sky falls for an episode or so after someone says something relatively incomprehensible, and we’re left reeling in bafflement and wondering what we missed.
Beyond its narrative problems, however, there’s little to dislike about Maya. Its aesthetic is both original and gorgeous, channeling more caricature and overall character into 3D than I’ve seen since Incredibles (or possibly since ever), and the animation, for the most part, is stellar. In general, it pulls off its 3D look far better than pretty much any competing series (Trollhunters is the only other 3D animated show I can think of that really nails its aesthetic), and the use of lighting is pretty solid (barring a Marvel-esque fixation with fight scenes taking place at night, although Maya’s are still dramatically more visible than anything out of Loki). I can blame the quality on Netflix money, to a point, but only so far (Dragon Prince, after all, definitely does not look this good, and certainly does not have action on the same level). At the end of the day, this show is just dang pretty, and it’s mostly due to the talent and originality of its art direction.
Maya’s stylization shines most in its character designs. Maya’s father towers over her like a giant, while other characters are small enough that even our humble heroine dwarfs them by comparison. Even the most minor background characters usually convey something of themselves in their depiction and proportion. The primary villain, Lord Mictlan, the God of War, is delightfully vile to look upon, with twin, swiveling heads that turn inwards to form one visage, and an oral fixation in his characterization that befits his ravenous motives. At the same time, he’s never actually grating to look at, and even the most exaggerated or grotesque characters have some charm to them. Each of the lesser gods is unique, and surprisingly memorable, which is no small feat, considering the sheer number of them, and the multiple nations of Maya’s world all have immediately unique visual identities (even more so than those of something like Raya and the Last Dragon, which is impressive). Even the way characters move is distinct and individual, especially the main characters—something even theatrical films frequently neglect. The artists get full use of exaggeration and characterization in Maya, and you get a sense of who each character is, just by looking at them and watching how they move.
Maya is primarily an action show, and the action is solid. While it has a tendency to get bogged down in fights that are slightly too long, and many frankly I simply couldn’t follow the ebb and flow of—pacing, again, is its greatest weakness—the boarding and bread-and-butter of it is above-average. The narrative of each fight can easily get murky (the story conveniently forgets about Mictlan’s greatest and most-established power, in the final fight, for instance), and I could’ve done with a bit more screentime devoted to our adventuring party being a party, outside of combat, but I was never bored. The environment is frequently incorporated to great effect, and it’s certainly no CGI slam fest. And there are some genuine stand-out moments—a fight taking place on floating, moon-shaped islands is a highlight. At its best, Maya’s action has that feeling of a good fighting game—two masters going toe-to-toe, exchanging jabs and taunts. It’s very Airbender, or Princess Bride. At its worst, it rockets between too many combatants too fast, and we’re left wondering why so-and-so didn’t do that thing he just did earlier in the fight, so much so that one character even lampshades it by quipping, “Why didn’t he do that sooner?”
Maya makes a lot of gutsy creative decisions—and, being on Netflix, doesn’t have to worry about censors; multiple times I questioned its rating of Y7, and I’ll leave it at that—and not all of its gambles always pay off. But I can’t help but admire it for going so hard at its ideas, and looking so good while it does it. This is a story for kids that talks about killing almost as much as six-year-olds do playing with action figures, and it isn’t afraid to “go there,” no matter how tragically. It’s never gratuitous, but I was surprised just how intensely each of our main characters is a broken teacup (the other leads make Maya’s accumulated trauma seem mild, which is impressive. Granted, they all steal the show a bit—especially the orphaned wizard Rico and the feral bow-child Chimi—so much so that once or twice I caught myself wishing one of them was the protagonist. I have a suspicion, however, that the dynamic wouldn’t work as well as I might think without the social glue of Maya in the mix).
Maya and the Three does not hold back, on any level. Sometimes that’s a strength—this is the first time I’ve seen any media actually depict the historical persecution of albinos, which gets some pretty gutsy and dramatic exploration (especially for a Y7 fantasy adventure), and it also comments brazenly on other current Latin American issues like rainforest deforestation. And, again, trauma plays a surprisingly prominent role—which tracks for the kind of things these characters experience, even if most fantasy adventures don’t usually acknowledge that. As a PTSD survivor myself, one scene where a character is staring into a fire, reliving a flashback while quietly panting to himself, was especially moving (and refreshingly accurate. This is the best PTSD representation I’ve seen since Kung Fu Panda 2, and yes, a cartoon movie about a panda is significantly more accurate than a laundry list of live action dramas).
And again, sometimes Maya’s no-holds-barred storytelling tactics are exactly what hamstring it. It doesn’t know when to stop a narrative sentence, and frequently stammers over itself, in its excitement. A lot of good moments get stepped on, or are dragged-out and killed because they should’ve been tighter, or pushed to another episode. Sometimes you can see where there was a good outline, but the moment is lost in the making. Or, very abruptly, the concept in play reverses itself, so we can hit a different bullet point added in a later revision.
One of Maya’s biggest strengths is how it utilizes more traditional fantasy-adventure narrative patterns as a springboard to more original storytelling. I just can’t help but wish it used a more traditional narrative structure, too. This is a story that easily could’ve been three seasons of a TV show, but instead it’s only nine episodes.
At the end of the day, it’s a show that I enjoyed, I just wish I could’ve gotten to see more of it as a show. As it is, it exists somewhere awkwardly between TV and film, and while it’s a good story, it’s strained and compressed for lack of proper medium. With essentially every narrative thread wrapped up (without spoiling anything), I don’t honestly see how anyone could write a sequel to it, so I think we shall simply have to watch it pass. A failed narrative experiment, but one with a beautiful aesthetic, and an excellent story.