Maya and the Three (Jorge R. Gutierrez, 2021)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Maya and the Three.

criterion logoAn epic animated event told over nine chapters, Jorge R. Gutierrez’s Maya and the Three is the story of a brave and rebellious warrior princess whose fifteenth birthday ceremony is interrupted by the gods of the underworld who claim her life is forfeit to the God of War, Lord Mictlan. While coming to terms with her family’s secret past, Princess Maya embarks on a quest to recruit three legendary fighters, fulfill an ancient prophecy, and save their four kingdoms from the gods’ vengeance. With its Mesoamerican inspired fantasy world, its frame-breaking action spectacles, and its impeccable collection of performances by Zoe Saldaña, Alfred Molina, Allen Moldonado, Stephanie Beatriz, Gabriel Iglesias, Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal, Rosie Perez, and Rita Moreno, Maya and the Three takes its inspiration from cinema’s great works of fantasy to produce a dazzling tribute to Gutierrez’s Mexican homeland.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • 4K digital transfer, approved by creator-director Jorge R. Gutierrez, with Dolby Atmos soundtrack on the 4K UHD and Blu-ray editions
  • In the 4K UHD edition: One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and two Blu-rays with the film and special features
  • Audio commentary featuring Gutierrez and creative consultant Sandra Equihua
  • Spanish language alternate soundtrack with newly translated English subtitles
  • Extended interviews with the Gutierrez, Equihua, Zoe Saldaña, Diego Luna, Gabriel Iglesias, Stephanie Beatriz, Allen Moldonado
  • Picture-in-picture storyboards and production artwork for the entire film
  • Behind the scenes footage
  • Featurettes on the series: Creating the World of Maya, Behind the Epic Battles, Meet the Warriors, and 15 Fun Facts
  • Music video for “If It’s To Be” by Kali Uchis
  • Son of Jaguar, Gutierrez’s VR tribute to Mexican pro-wrestling
  • Super Macho Fighter, a stop-motion proof of concept created by Gutierrez
  • Carmen Got Expelled!, a 2010 pilot by Gutierrez
  • Carmelo, Gutierrez’s 2000 thesis film for CalArts, and Tequila Macho, a 1999 teaser made at CalArts
  • We the People music video series produced by Netflix with creator Chris Nee, producers Barack and Michelle Obama, and various directors including Gutierrez
  • Trailers and teasers
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: New essays by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and visual effects journalist Ian Failes; and drawings, original paintings, and other ephemera

It might be noted by MMC! regulars that I have not yet offered my favourite films of 2021. This was mostly due to me just not feeling strongly enough about the films I had seen this past year. Still, it’s no faint praise to share my ascending adoration for my three favourite films of 2021 – Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s pensive Drive My Car, James Gunn’s excessive The Suicide Squad, and Jorge R. Gutierrez’s mythically epic Maya and the Three. Being a CGI-“animated event” aimed primarily toward young audiences, told in nine parts, and released on Netflix, Maya and the Three does not look like the typical Criterion Collection title but I’ll suggest that its differences are precisely the reason it should be canonized with a wacky “C.” With its cultural specificity, its epic fantasy plot, its animated form, its all-ages audience, and its streaming-specific production and release, Gutierrez’s opus speaks directly to the current state of popular cinema and to recent features in the filmic landscape not readily attended to by the Collection. Plus, for good measure, Maya and the Three is also really, really great.

In the Aztec-inspired kingdom of Teca, Princess Maya (Zoe Saldaña) longs for the life of adventure enjoyed father, King Teca (Jorge R. Gutierrez), and her brothers, Lance, Dagger, and Shield (Gael Garcia Bernal), however she is groomed by her mother, Queen Teca (Sandra Equihua), for a life of diplomacy. On her fifteenth birthday, her coronation ceremony is interrupted by an underworld demigod, Zatz, the Prince of Bats (Diego Luna), who informs her and her family that her life is forfeit to Lord Mictlan, the God of War (Alfred Molina), so that he might gain even greater power. When Teca refuses to surrender Maya to the gods of the underworld, its army is decimated and Maya embarks on a quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy by recruiting warriors from the three other kingdoms to defeat Lord Mictlan. From Luna Island’s Caribbean-esque land of sorcery, Maya enlists insecure Rooster Wizard Rico (Allen Moldonano). From the Mayan-inspired Jungle Lands, she recruits Chimi (Stephanie Beatriz), that kingdom’s legendary Skull Archer who lives as an outcast due to her albinism and is called “Monstruo Blanco.” Finally, from the Barbarian Kingdom located atop the Golden Mountains, recalling the Incas of Machu Picchu, Maya is joined by the brave and kind-hearted giant Picchu (Gabriel Iglesias). With her collection of defenders, Maya faces off against all manner of gods and magic, making further allies in the process and learning the true meanings of friendship, leadership, and sacrifice.

MAYA REPRESENTS!

Most immediately, Maya and the Three wears on its sleeve Gutierrez’s pride for his native Mexico and other Latin American and Caribbean cultures. It can be seen obviously in Maya’s vibrantly colourful and baroque designs, its fantastical remixes of indigenous civilizations, and its murderers’ row of Latin performers –Saldaña, Bernal, Luna, Molina, Maldonado, Beatriz, Iglesias, Rosie Perez, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Rita Moreno, Kate del Castillo, Chelsea Rendon, Isabela Merced, Joaquín Cosío, and Carolina Ravassa (plus Queen Latifah and Wyclef Jean) – however Gutierrez expresses his love in the finest details as well. Maya’s weapon is a macuahuitl, a wooden club embedded with obsidian blades (capable of cutting at a cellular level); the head of Chiapa, the Tecas’ giant black jaguar, is based on the Ocelotl Cuauhxicalli sculpture carved by Aztec artisans and on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City; and particularly sharp-eyed viewers will recognize Maya’s coronation dress as inspired by the headdress of Moctezuma and various “crazy outfits” worn by past Mexican Miss Universe contestants. In addition to pageant gowns, Gutierrez infuses more modern aspects of Latin culture into Maya. By example, lucha libre (Mexican professional wrestling) is referenced in the mask Maya wears during her bouts in the Bare Knuckle Fighting Pits; Rico’s design is a love letter to Haitian/Puerto Rican-American artist Jean-Michel Basquait; and Acat, the Goddess of Tattoos, takes inspiration from Chola culture.

As much as Maya and the Three describes Gutierrez’s Hispanic pride, it does not exist hermetically sealed off from global culture and the film makes varied references to the dynamic influences that created it. A laundry list of cultural nods are made at Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979), Mr. T, the Masters of the Universe toys and their packaging art, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), the Batman TV series from the 1960s, Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two,” Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon (1973), “New Challenger” video game screens, John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982), the Smiths, and Dave Fleischer’s The Old Man of the Mountain (1933). Japanese influences abound in particular, from syntactic elements like the use of speed lines in the background to convey movement, to semantic aspects like the giant assembled mecha from Voltron and Power Rangers, the iconic Akira motorbike slide, the “big, chunky legs” of Chun-Li from Street Fighter, and the visored helmets of Gatchaman. Gutierrez has gone so far as to suggest that the entire film is essentially The Wizard of Oz, with Maya as Dorothy, Rico as the Scarecrow (literally said in the film), Chimi as the Tin Man, and Picchu as the Lion, or a Mexican version of The Lord of the Rings “but hilarious” and supposing that the ring was a living character (read: Maya). In these ways, Maya embodies Gutierrez’s cross-cultural origins and aspirations: “I watched Seven Samurai when I was 9 years old, and afterwards I told my dad that I wanted to be a samurai when I grow up. My dream is that a kid in Japan will see Maya and tell their dad that they want to be an eagle warrior.”

Young Sandra EquihuaHistorical or modern, traditional or globalized, the most distinguishing and Mexican feature of Maya and the Three is found in its treatment of death. While typically reserved in animated family fare for tragic origin stories or as a means to finally dispense with a villainous adversary, death is a pervasive feature of Maya and the Three. Each episode of the film opens with a prologue that describes some formative death and it is common to witness characters die throughout Maya’s nine chapters. At times, death is transformative, though it is no less permanent, and it is engaged openly as fact of living that is neither hidden nor abjected. Perhaps death’s tragedy and darkness is even more poignant in Maya given how it exists alongside the joy and the silliness of children’s cinema and the conventions of the teen romance. Death brings a grief that is intrinsic to the lessons the film imparts, teaching its titular warriors the shallowness of glory and the true scale of sacrifice. It is also telling that Maya attends to the cycle of life and death and the discovery of genuine altruism through primarily female figures. When the film’s final battle eventually arrives, Teca is defended by an army of women and each of the four kingdoms are led by female rulers. Gutierrez ascribes Maya’s feisty and rebellious personality to his mother, his sister, and his wife and collaborator, Sandra Equihua. (Equihua, pictured above as a young woman and a veritable double for the film’s titular character, was primarily responsible for the designs of Maya’s female characters, while Gutierrez worked on the male figures.) For her part, Equihua has been open about her hopes that little Latina girls will find inspiration and empowerment in Maya

MAYA’S CINEMATIC!

Surely there are some out there who will reject Maya and the Three from Criterion canonization on the basis that it is not “a film.” They will point to its episodic structure, its Netflix distribution, and its Annie Awards in Television categories. Frankly, I don’t want to spill digital ink defending Maya as a film to individuals who would reject it while at the same time straining to make Twin Peaks: The Return qualify as cinema. Film is an elastic medium that covers major studio schlock and experimental pretentions, and streaming has more recently changed the topography of film, bringing further diversity to what is made, how it is made, and how it is received. For what it’s worth (and it should probably be worth nothing), Maya bills itself as neither a mini-series nor a movie, but an “animated event.”

Gutierrez conceives of his nine-part event at the intersection of film and television. Thinking, “I’m a fat guy with a beard, like Peter Jackson, they’ll let me do three movies,” Gutierrez discovered this was not the case and began reflecting on Scott Frank’s western miniseries, Godless (2017). In the animator’s estimation, Godless wouldn’t work as a movie, yet it wasn’t a television show – it was something in between. From there, Gutierrez recalled that his favourite movies, so-called “giant movies” – Seven SamuraiThe Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – were discovered by him at home on Mexican television, and that many kids today will discover The Lord of the Rings trilogy at home in just the same manner. Revival cinemas are luxuries enjoyed by relatively few, leaving TV screens (and now those on our various devices) as the gatekeeper for nearly all of cinema’s history. Television is therefore an aspect of cinema and streaming services like Netflix elaborate on this relationship rather than negate it. Gutierrez accordingly intended on Maya and the Three as “one big movie” that “happened many years ago in the cinema” and gets to be watched on TV now, where the scale of cinema seems measured less by the size of the screen and more by the breadth of its imagination and that of its viewer.

MAYA’S EPIC!

Openly acknowledging the influence of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Wizard of Oz, Gutierrez conveys a desire to create an epic adventure in his own vernacular. Maya and the Three seems to exist with one foot in the realm of sword and sorcery and the other among comic book super-hero teams, pushing back against the European medieval fantasy worlds and male caucasian hegemony that dominates them respectively. One should likely take care in turning issues of representations into statements of resistance as it may put too many words into Gutierrez’s mouth as the filmmaker. While speaking about his editing practices, Gutierrez has conveyed his admiration for Hong Kong cinema and Bollywood, national cinemas with comparatively less resources to Hollywood but intent on “showing off” to “make it feel like a movie.” Further, when discussing his practices of remixing history and mythology, Gutierrez cites another liberty-taking, epic adventure/comedy from global cinema – the Journey to the West films of Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark. Drawing from a traditionally lesser art form closer to home that is even more epic in length and more apt to “show off,” Gutierrez even cites Mexico’s telenovelas as a source of grand inspiration, using the epic tragedy of the soap opera to imagine the arcs of Maya and her warriors as each a novella in their own right. Epic storytelling is a global enterprise in his view and if Maya and the Three does not intentionally push back against the anglo-action-fantasies promoted by the major studios, Gutierrez at least aims to offer back to the great cinematic quests that influenced him something specific to his respective culture.

“Epicness” abounds in cinema today. The summer blockbuster, which coalesced with the releases of Jaws and Star Wars in the 1970s, has given way over the last decade to a blockbuster mentality that has spread year-round into franchises and extended cinematic universes that span the big screen, the small screen, and every screen in between. Our tent-pole summer spectaculars carry on from summer to summer with franchises like The Planet of the Apes and Pirates of the Caribbean series, follow obligatory trilogies with multi-part prequels as with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, and cross boundaries between film, television, and streaming with massive world-building endeavours to create the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. Criterion has previously taken on the subject of the summer blockbuster in its current hard media library, but reactions to its selections have been mixed at best and more than 20 years have since passed. It is no doubt a challenge for the Collection to engage with these titles as rights-holders surely command high prices for access, assuming they see any value in a Criterion edition and are willing to share at all. Maya and the Three engages in the discourse of epicness without being tied to an established IP or a tight-fisted studio with films serving a multitude interests held by a broader corporate conglomerate. Gutierrez’s animated event sprawls across nine parts and over 234 minutes. Released together on Netflix, it is packaged to be parceled out or binge-watched at the viewer’s pleasure. Gutierrez creates his own cinematic grammar for grandiosity in Maya by having his action increasingly break the frame limits and extend into the black borders that surround the frame, connecting it to the prominence of comic book cinema by creating a filmic corollary to the comic book page where four-colour action regularly spills beyond the comic book panel, across the gutters that divide them, and over other panels. Maya would provide the Criterion Collection with a means to approach the modern blockbuster without securing one itself. Perhaps it might even help establish Maya as one of the classics of modern epicness.

MAYA’S FUN FOR ALL AGES!

Just as ubiquitous to contemporary cinema as the epic fantasy-action film is the CGI-animated family feature. Accounting for the derision made of modern blockbusters, particularly the Marvel movies that Martin Scorsese has famously compared to “theme parks,” family-oriented cinema manages to still occupy a position of even lower critical regard. Animation, to be considered “art,” often distinguishes itself by claiming adults to be its intended audience, implicitly accepting that animation of the domain of children and therefore undeserving of critical esteem. The Collection’s animated releases court these high-art justifications, however the label has admirably made space for family-friendly content on its streaming Channel with the “Saturday Matinee” series, providing a forum within its hallowed arthouse walls for all-ages viewing. Family fare has found limited representation in Criterion’s physical library with success (Zazie dans le métro) and more mixed results (Jellyfish Eyes). As with epic action-fantasy films, there is a fair amount of chaff amongst the modern animated family features, leaving Criterion to struggle with possessive rights-holders to negotiate access to the exemplars of the form. Disney obviously stands as a bar to the best of Pixar’s releases, while GKIDS already provides a worthy home to the best international animation. Criterion’s partnership with Netflix offers access to a library of animated/family-oriented titles that would allow the label to address this critically under-appreciated, commercially significant mode and find an admirable first candidate in Maya and the Three.

In fairness, it is probably poor timing to claim Netflix as a resource to resolving the animation and family cinema woes found in the physical Collection. While Netflix does its best to wring cash out of Boss Baby content, it has made harsh cuts to its animation studio in the face of disastrous earnings reports in Q1 and has cancelled many animated projects including Gutierrez’s own Kung-Fu Space Punch (though it is proceeding with Iglesias and Gutierrez’s I, Chihuahua). Guillermo del Toro’s forthcoming Pinocchio may be the more likely animated Netflix film to find Criterion canonization given the label’s already established relationship with the filmmaker, though that film’s darker tone and higher age rating may limits its ability to engage with the family-first content we would like to see Criterion address with some artistic and critical earnestness. For MMC!Maya and the Three stands on par with The Iron Giant (Brad Bird, 1999), Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001), The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004), The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2014), and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, and Rodney Rothman, 2018). Its blend of 2D and 3D animation sequences, its intricate designs adapting 2D indigenous art into 3D renderings, and its “CG stop-motion” approach makes it a technical marvel, while its story of Maya’s maturation is as dramatic, heartfelt, and inspiring as found in any of these other masterpieces. 

“IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME!”

Maya and the Three PosterMaya and the Three bears little resemblance to the typical Criterion title on first blush. Packaged for binge-streaming on the couch with the kids and populated by super-powered teenagers negotiating love and death, Maya is easy to dismiss as trivial entertainment for youngsters and acquiescing parents. In fact, Maya is a brilliantly crafted work of contemporary animation deserving of its seven Annie Award nominations and its two prizes. With a spine-number and a wacky “C,” Maya would introduce the Collection to the fantasy franchises, the super heroics, and animated family films that have dominated multiplexes for the last two decades. At the same time, Gutierrez’s animation would continue Criterion’s current interest in bringing attention to female-centric stories and further exploring global film cultures. There would be no short supply of potential cover art for a Criterion edition of Maya and the Three but MMC! likes this simple poster of the title card. Finish it with some gold embossing and some of Maya’s Mayan inspired patterns (maybe a few skulls just for Gutierrez) and you’d have a gorgeously eye-catching Criterion release.

Credits: This imagined edition of Maya and the Three collects a plethora of fairly standard but no less rewarding special features. That alternate Spanish language voice-track does exist, described by Gutierrez as “a little meaner and a little raunchier.” Guillermo del Toro was chosen to provide a booklet essay given his past relationship with Gutierrez as a producer and voice actor on The Book of Life and his own experience as an animation creator with Netflix.

This post owes a great debt to the wonderful book by Dark Horse Comics, The Art of Maya and the Three. Thanks are also owed to Jennifer Wolfe’s article for IndieWire, Caroline Framke’s review for Variety, Cristina Escobar’s review for RogerEbert.com, Robert Lloyd’s review for Los Angeles Times, Petrana Radukovic’s review for Polygon, Rafael Motamayor’s interview for Vulture and his articles for Collider and Thrillist, Ria Goveas’ review for The Wellesley News, Ian Failes’ interview for Before & Afters, and Victoria Davis’ article for Animation World Network on Maya’s designs.

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