Centered on a warrior princess who must defend civilization from the wrath of menacing gods, the Netflix series “Maya and the Three” transports viewers to a fantastical animated world. Bursting with color and action – that at times breaks through into the black bars of its widescreen image, or splits into multi-panels to capture what cannot be contained by a single frame — “Maya” leaps off the screen.
In each installment of this nine-part epic, Maya (voiced by Zoe Saldaña), must recruit other misfit paladins in order to fulfill a prophecy and save the world. From one chapter to the next, “Maya” showcases its creator Jorge Gutiérrez’s extraordinary imagination unbound by introducing a new thrilling battle that unfolds across a different dazzling realm that honors distinct aspects of Latin American mythology, intertwined with contemporary pop culture references. It’s the most accomplished expression of the stylistic and thematic maximalism that has long characterized the work of the Mexican animator, artist, and writer-director.
“[Jorge’s] work never feels safe or traditional — it’s exploding with energy and color and pushed design and absurdist joy,” “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller told IndieWire via email. “In studio animation, often the edges get sanded off things that feel unusual, extreme, or distinct, until everything feels the same. Jorge doesn’t let those edges get sanded, so his work always feels fresh and innovative instead of boring and conventional.”
Watch the video below for an introduction to the animated worlds of Jorge Gutiérrez
Laden in iconography, Gutiérrez’s heavily ornate characters resemble miniature “árbol de la vida” or “tree of life” handcrafted sculptures from his homeland. Gutiérrez has such a distinct style that a mere glance at any of his TV and film productions or plastic artworks reveals their painstaking fabrication and his abundant pride for Mexican culture. Sandra Equihua — Gutiérrez’s wife, closest artistic partner, and a superb character designer in her own right — confirms that his larger-than-life creations mimic the nature of folkloric art: individually handmade and thus irreplicable.
“There are a lot of quirks to it and a lot of individuality to it,” she said. “All his characters are different, they’re colorful, they’re unique in their own way. He loves saying they’re ‘wonky.’”
Gutiérrez refers to his oeuvre as a rather expensive form of therapy. He begins thinking about what aspect of his life he’d like to deal with, or revisit via subject matter from Mexican culture he finds compelling. Gutiérrez’s first major project, “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera,” was a personal take on lucha libre that was grounded in his memories of growing up in Mexico City. His debut feature, “The Book of Life,” uses death as a metaphor for an artist reinventing himself. “Maya and the Three” ponders sacrifice, with an added biographical connection: according to Gutiérrez, “Maya’s basically Sandra.”
“I try to marry the personal with the genre with, hopefully, the soulful,” Gutiérrez explained. “I always start with that and then look at the buffet of culture in front of me. That’s how I see Mexico. There’s just so many delicious dishes. I will never get to eat all of them, but there’s some that I just have to try, and I have to do my take on them.”
The product of bustling metropolises where cultures intersect — raised between Mexico City and the border city of Tijuana — Gutiérrez attributes his overelaborate aesthetic to those urban settings and a fascination with folkloric art and Catholic imagery that took root at a young age.
“The busyness always brought me comfort. I feel comfortable in the chaos. Nothing unnerves me more than silence or when everything is calm,” Gutiérrez said.
He first found validation for his innate talents at family parties, where loved ones would challenge him to create portraits of some of the guests under strenuous circumstances: being held upside down, for example, or without lifting his hand from the table. He now thinks of these childhood tricks as his earliest professional tests. Years later, when he moved to the U.S., that artistic ability served as conduit for connection.
“I didn’t speak English very well, but I could draw Transformers and I could draw Ninja Turtles,” Gutiérrez said. “Whatever the kids were into at that time. I would just take out a piece of paper, look around, start drawing. People would say, ‘Whoa, that kid could draw!’ Drawing became my way to fit in.”
Around the age of 13, Gutiérrez asserted that he wanted to become a painter, a writer, or a movie director. “For a kid in Tijuana to say that it was like saying, ‘I want to be Batman’ or ‘I want to be the Pope.’ It just seemed completely unrealistic,” he said. Animation eventually stood out as the field where all his interest and aptitudes could converge.
courtesy Everett Collection
With no precedent in the family, Gutiérrez’s father declared he’d only allow his son to pursue this untraveled career path if he was accepted into the profession’s most prestigious school: the California Institute for the Arts (CalArts). The institution’s ties to Walt Disney Animation Studios weighed on Gutiérrez. “I decided, ‘Well, if I’m going to get into that school, I’m going to draw all the things that the Americans want to see,’” he said. Meanwhile, Gutiérrez was assembling a separate sample of his work, paintings inspired by luchadores and Day of the Dead. “All these super Mexican things,” he said. “I took that portfolio to see if I could get into painting schools, purely for ego.”
With both portfolios in hand, he met with the head of the CalArts Experimental Animation Program, Jules Engel. The late Hungarian animator — who had worked on “Fantasia” and “Bambi” before defecting from Disney to help start United Productions of America — judged Gutiérrez’s proficient, but unoriginal renditions of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse harshly. Gutiérrez remembers Engel telling him, “You’re not an artist. You’re a copy machine.”
A downhearted Gutiérrez walked away from the meeting, forgetting his second portfolio — a stroke of luck, it turned out, once Engel began leafing through them. “Hey sad boy, come back!” he called after Gutiérrez. “What is this?”
“Oh, these are my paintings,” Gutiérrez replied.
“What is this about?” Engel asked.
Gutiérrez told Engel a story for each of the 10 “over-the-top, festive, crazy paintings.” All these years later, he recalled Engel laughing. “You idiot boy,” the instructor told his future pupil. “This is your voice.”
“It took a foreigner to get a foreigner to embrace where they were from,” Gutiérrez said. “When people ask me, ‘How did you find your style?’ or ‘How did you know this was it?’ I look back at that moment. That was the moment that changed my life.”
Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Twentieth Century Fox/AP Images
Gutiérrez’s life would change once more while seeking a big-name producer for “The Book of Life.” An admirer of Guillermo del Toro since coming across “Cronos” in a video store in the late ’90s, Gutiérrez had dreamed of collaborating with the “Master of Monsters.” Unable to find many Latino role models in animation, he found in del Toro a compatriot to look up to.
Diligently, he pursued del Toro for “The Book of Life,” failing to bring a meeting to fruition over a dozen times. When he finally arranged some time for a pitch at the filmmaker’s house, a series of unfortunate events ensued: the heat that caused him to sweat profusely, the sound leaf blowers at full blast, and del Toro’s tight schedule all derailed his presentation.
After giving what he considers the worst pitch in the history of Hollywood, Gutiérrez felt defeated, but his idol and future mentor had already decided to get on board. Overjoyed that del Toro would support his passion-fueled enterprise about Day of the Dead, Gutiérrez handed him a physical screenplay drenched in tequila from a party.
Speaking to The Film Experience about “The Book Of Life” in 2014, del Toro said, “It’s important to protect things that are unique. I knew that we needed to protect [Jorge’s] images. I knew that if he went unguarded into the swamps of production, by the end of it all, it would be talking animals [Laughs] so to speak.”
With del Toro on his side, Gutiérrez met with another one of his major creative influences, Oscar-winning Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla. To the average moviegoer, Santaolalla is known for scoring the likes of “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and “The House.” But to Gutiérrez, he was the man behind the soundtrack of his life — in addition to his own recordings, Santaolalla had produced a slew of essential albums by Latin American bands over the years.
While impressed with how “The Book of Life” handled the delicate subject of death, it was through its director’s love for Rock en Español that Santaolalla understood Gutiérrez’s singular mode of expression. “His style of animation has the potency and energy of a distorted electric guitar and rock itself,” Santaolalla said.
Their collaboration continued with “Maya and the Three.” Santaolalla believes that the episodic format perfectly suited the avalanche of concepts and characters that comprise this fictional pre-Columbian action saga. “Jorge’s universe is so psychedelic and baroque, like Mexico itself, that a film wouldn’t do justice to so much information to absorb visually,” Santaolalla said.
Staying steadfastly true to his impulses has meant dealing with an industry that’s not always receptive to bold and unusual ideas from outsiders. “El Tigre” was canceled by Nickelodeon after a single season — despite having won five Daytime Emmys and the Annie Awards for Best Animated Television Production for Children and Best Character Design.
“The Book of Life,” received its fair share of accolades and positive reviews, but was only a modest success at the box office. Failed pilots and a canceled feature (the Lego spin-off “The Billion Brick Race”) ensued, but looking back at the false starts and disappointments collected along the way, Gutiérrez is thankful for the paths they opened.
“For example, if ‘El Tigre’ had not been canceled, I never would’ve made ‘The Book of Life,’ because ‘Coco’ would’ve come out and then people would’ve thought ‘The Book of Life’ was a ‘Coco’ rip-off,” he said. “But if ‘The Book of Life’ had made a billion dollars, I’d probably be stuck doing ‘The Book of Life 5’ right now. But because it wasn’t a billion-dollar success, I got to go to Netflix and make ‘Maya and the Three.’”
Gutiérrez initially planned to tell his self-described “Mesoamerican ‘Lord of the Rings’” across a trilogy of feature films, but was encouraged by the existence of Patrick McHale’s “Over the Garden Wall” — the fantasy miniseries that won the Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program in 2015 — to consider television the proper venue for Maya’s quest.
When he began conceiving the saga, Gutiérrez was rendered overwhelmed by the weight of Mexico’s complex history, specifically the oppression of its indigenous populations. “We come from the conflict, we come from the two cultures clashing,” he said. “We come from the pillaging and destruction of an ancient culture to build another one on top of it, literally tearing down temples and using the same stones to build churches.”
Although their ancestral myths and art shaped the conception of “Maya and the Three,” Gutiérrez chose not to utilize any of the civilizations’ actual names (Aztec, Olmec, Incan) in the story. However, the names of several deities and their respective domains remained unchanged. Ultimately, his apprehension subsided when he realized that his was only one rendition among many.
“As an artist, I’m not a historian. I should obviously be very informed, but I’m doing an interpretation. For better or for worse, I’m doing my take on the culture. That freed me,” said Gutiérrez. ““Hopefully audiences like this and it’ll be a gateway into looking at the real history.”
Designs from ancient sculptures and archeological sites merged with his already intricate technique for an explosion of brightly colored heroes and antagonists across wondrous lands. This time, Gutiérrez’s grand vision expanded geographically and aesthetically beyond Mexico, to include references to Central America, the Caribbean, and even South America.
For Gutiérrez and Equihua, who early on had to figure out how to maintain the appropriate life and work balance by not creating a division between the two, “Maya” signifies a culmination of their shared trajectory in art and life. The notion that “Maya” is their joint venture, their artistic child, became part of the work itself — they even voice Maya’s parents in the show, Queen and King Teca.
“Our work is our life and the moment we acknowledged that it freed us because it allowed us to truly collaborate,” said Gutiérrez. “Everybody warned us early on, people who have never worked in animation or the arts, said, ‘You can’t work as a couple. Your marriage will not last.’ But to me it was like, ‘There’s a 50% chance of divorce anyways. If we can’t work together, then we shouldn’t be together.’”
With a less-is-more philosophy informed by her background in graphic design standing in contrast to her husband’s zest for ornamentation, Equihua consdiers herself Gutiérrez’s Jiminy Cricket. “Sometimes I have to tell him, ‘Dude, you’re going a little too far. Maybe you can pull back a little bit. We don’t need that many skulls on that character.’”
She added, with a laugh, “Sometimes he agrees, but most of the time it’s a no.”
“There are a lot of characters where we both take turns and it’s like dancing a tango, but she has shoes with daggers and knives, so I better not step on her,” said Gutiérrez. “It’s a very delicate dance working with Sandra, but I think she’s brilliant.”
In March of 2022, “Maya and the Three” won two Annie Awards: Best Animated Television/Media Production for Children’s Audience and Outstanding Achievement for Music for Santaolalla and Tim Davies. With hard-fought victories to their names, and their fair share of survived setbacks, Gutiérrez and Equihua have themselves become guiding stars to a new generation of Latino artist who wish to follow in their footsteps. They take that duty with the gravitas it merits.
“When people ask us about animation, with time, we have learned not to make it seem like it’s all rainbows and unicorns because it’s tough,” said Equihua.
courtesy of Jorge Gutiérrez
There’s a generosity of spirit in Gutiérrez toward the new wave of aspiring animation artists. Conscious that many children of immigrants, specifically Latinos, don’t have a reference point to convince their parents there can be room for them in animation, Gutiérrez urges them to point at him to prove there’s a chance.
“Jorge is a great example to others trying to break into the animation industry,” said Lord and Miller, describing Gutiérrez as a “pillar in the animation community” today. “He came on the scene with a distinct style and joyful vitality and was met with setback after setback in a system that is slow to embrace things that are different. But he didn’t give up, and he didn’t change his style to match what everyone else was doing.”
Marching to his own unstoppable and unequivocally Mexican beat, Gutiérrez has several projects in the works, of which only one has been officially announced: “I Chihuahua,” a feature film at Netflix starring Mexican-American comedian Gabriel Iglesias. Though unable to share further details on the rest, Gutiérrez did mention one of the other endeavors in development is aimed at adult audiences.
“’Maya’ doing well worldwide let them know I’m not just making stuff for Mexico. I’m trying to make stuff for everybody. ‘Maya’ has allowed me to keep making things that big and that over-the-top,” he explained. “I also love awards because they let you make more stuff. And at the end of the day that’s what I really want. I just want to keep making stuff.” —Carlos Aguilar