Emmy-winning creator and director of “The Book of Life” and “El Tigre” Jorge Gutierrez and his longtime partner, in life and in work, Sandra Equihua hosted one of this year’s most highly anticipated Work in Progress sessions at this year’s Annecy Animation Festival on Wednesday. In the hour-long panel and subsequent Q&A, the pair served up an all you can eat smorgasbord of details which had until now been scant on their upcoming Netflix limited series “Maya and the Three.”
Gutierrez started off by describing a Netflix dinner with many of the people who would go on to form Netflix Animation, where he was asked by Melissa Cobb to, “Pitch us something you don’t think you can get made anywhere.”
“Immediately the tombs of my ancestors all over Mexico began shaking and they said, ‘This is the time, the time to pitch Maya!’” he remembered fondly.
That pitch would become “Maya and the Three,” a highly anticipated four-and-a-half-hour Mesoamerican mythological epic limited series which will launch on Netflix this fall set in a mythical Mesoamerican inspired world where Maya, a warrior princess, sets off on a journey to recruit three legendary fighters who she believes can help save the world of humankind from the gods.
Gutierrez and Equihua started their presentation with character details of Maya, a princess and a warrior in equal parts. Princess Maya dresses in bright colors – primarily red, green and white of course – with asymmetrical hair and distinctive red face paint. Maya’s tattoos are as mismatched as her hair and sideways skirt, all meant to reflect that the princess is torn in her decision between becoming a diplomat or a warrior.
Maya the warrior however exudes a more confident persona, with her entire look, apart from her hair, symmetrical and tidy. “The hair is still longer on one side than the other,” Gutierrez explained, “because I think deep down inside, she is still torn between the two.”
“From the beginning we were careful and aware that when you look at her, she looked like she could take you on and that she was fearless,” explained Equihua.
After Maya came her parents, King and Queen Teca, he a warrior and she a royal – who also knows how to throw a punch.
“Maya was designed first, and from Maya we broke down her design to make her parents,” Gutierrez explained.
King Teca “had to look of those murals I saw and all the super macho giant male Eagle warriors,” according to Gutierrez. A hulk of a man, King Teca is always armored with twin swords across his back and has one normal hand while the other has been replaced by an eagle talon-looking weapon.
Maya’s mother is regal, symmetric and brightly colored. She reminds of a queen on a chess board but brightly colored with wild hair like inverted tree roots shooting up, interwoven with culturally significant colored strings.
Maya also has three brothers, Dagger, Shield and Lance. With full body armor of their own, the boys are the ancient equivalent of jocks and excel in physical activity. According to Gutierrez, the three are always together and move as a singular unit.
Next up was Maya’s father’s noble steed, an Aztec-inspired jaguar named Chiapa. Although massive and frightful to behold, the cat has as much in common with the Cowardly Lion as it does with He-Man’s Battle Cat. In a classic movie trope, think “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” Maya will take the cat without permission to aid her on her journey.
Once the family had been introduced, Gutierrez, almost giddily, screened the very first clip of “Maya and the Three” seen in public. In the brief clip, Maya is dragged through a pyramid by her parents to pick up a new outfit. “Not another princess dress” she moans, before Mom opens a massive set of doors to reveal her own eagle armor which she is gifting to Maya. Thrilled, Maya’s excitement peaks when her father offers a gift of his own, a warrior’s club that once belonged to the King himself.
“Now the Eagle Claw is yours,” he says, bubbling over with pride before nudging his Queen and whispering, “Little Eagle Warrior… right?”
After the first clip, the audience got to meet the bad guys. First up was Lord Mictlan, god of the dead. Massive and demonic in aesthetic, he is inspired by Mictlantecuhtli, Aztec god of the dead. With red-orange skin and black and green armor loaded with skulls, the most striking feature of Mictlan is his face, made of two pressed together skulls facing one another. No action shots were shared of Mictlan speaking, but it will surely be something to behold.
After the Mictlan came a goddess of the dead, Lady Micte. Inspired by the popular goddess Mictecacihuatl, she cuts the figure of a Catrina. Similarly covered in skulls, Mictlan’s massive headdress actually has two full-length skeletons hanging from it.
“For people who like dressing up as La Muerte from ‘The Book of Life,’ we’ve got a new challenge for you, so good luck!” Gutierrez joked.
While the first two villains are ancient in the world of “Maya and the Three,” the heroin will encounter enemies her own age as well. The first shared during the presentation is Acat, the goddess of tattoos. Described as Maya if she followed all her worst instincts, Acat’s aesthetic borrows heavily from Mexican American Chicano and chola culture, the culture that Gutierrez and Equihua grew up around in Tijuana near the Mexico-U.S. border.
Zatz, the prince of bats was the final character properly introduced on the day. The physical opposite of Maya, Zatz is a young man with white hair and only one remaining eye, who rides a skeletal puma with flaming eyes. Described as the world’s first vampire, Zatz has the ability to shapeshift, and a drawing of the god as a bat was a hit with the virtual audience, with several pleading for a plush toy of the figure.
After the characters came locations, each of which was lush, vibrant and diverse. First was Maya’s homeland of Teca, a cityscape highly influenced by Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan. Symmetric and clean, there is a place for everything and everything is in its place, except for Maya who longs for something more.
Luna Island, a “love letter to modern Caribbean culture” according to Gutierrez. Made of purple islands floating in the sky with magic white sand, the cities are full of rooster-shaped buildings including a wizard academy. It is in Luna Island where Maya meets the first of The Three she must recruit to save the world. By the end of the presentation the audience had seen silhouettes of The Three, but little more. Gutierrez and Equihua needed to keep some of their powder dry for when the series drops.
The second of The Three comes from the Jungle Lands and is inspired by Yucatan pyramids. The people of the Jungle Lands worship the goddess of death, and it is reflected in their architecture. Every brick of their pyramids is shaped like a skull, a detail that surely had the series’ animators suffering from hand cramps.
Finally, Maya finishes her recruitment tour in the Golden Mountains, reminiscent of the Incan city of Machu Picchu. Above the clouds, the kingdom is loaded with Incan symbolism from its throne room to its ominous dungeons.
Once Maya finishes her tour, she heads off to battle an as-yet unidentified force but must first pass through the anthropomorphic Divine Gate to the Underworld which takes the form of a monumental stone golem.
“It’s a fantasy version of what I imagine a gate to the underworld would look like,” explained Gutierrez.
Finally, the audience was treated to the day’s most badass picture of the Underworld from the outside, a gargantuan, upside down flaming pyramid.
“I kept thinking of heavy metal when I was thinking about it,” said Gutierrez, explaining that there will be plenty of metal music to accompany the action.
After all the artwork had been show, including a flashy color script from one of the episodes, Gutierrez and Equihua shared a final, action-packed clip of Maya’s battle with Acat. Floating in the air, the goddess of tattoo’s ink transforms into glowing purple wings and weapons as she descends on Maya in a sequence that borrows heavily from anime combat scenes, with a touch of “The Matrix’s” bullet time.
Finally, the two creatives took questions from the audience, but were unable to answer all of them, the most pressing being about casting.
“The cast is insane!” the pair insisted, with Gutierrez promising that, “For people who like ‘El Tigre’ and ‘Book of Life,’ they’re going to be so happy! The cast is huge and epic, so epic that Netflix won’t allow us to say who is in it.”
When discussing what’s up next, Gutierrez referred back to Annecy 2017, when he announced via Variety that he was developing an insane space western called “Kung Fu Space Punch.”
“Netflix animation has been kind to us and there is a lot more coming,” he said. “We pitched at Annecy my space western ‘Kung Fu Space Punch,’ that’s something that is hopefully cooking for the future.”
Unfortunately, as Disney now owns “The Book of Life,” a previously announced sequel looks unlikely, at least anytime soon.
“I will say though,” he added, “Before I die, it would be really cool [to make the sequel].”