How ‘Maya and the Three,’ ‘Encanto’ and ‘Vivo’ animate Latinidad
By Laura Zornosa
Take “The Lord of the Rings,” but make it Mesoamerican. Pepper the plot with pop culture references, and you have “Maya and the Three.”
Originally envisioned by creator Jorge R. Gutiérrez as a film trilogy, “Maya and the Three” began to take shape in 2018 when Netflix executives asked him to pitch an idea that he loved but didn’t think he could get made anywhere else.
“What came out of my mouth was: ‘I want to make three movies in a row about a Mesoamerican warrior princess who’s going to save the world,’” Gutiérrez said. Now re-imagined as a nine-episode animated miniseries, the result arrived Friday on Netflix, with a vocal cast studded with Latino stars, including Zoe Saldaña (Maya), Diego Luna (Zatz, prince of bats), Gael García Bernal (the Jaguar Brothers), Stephanie Beatriz (Chimi) and Rita Moreno (Ah Puch).
As singular as it sounds, “Maya and the Three” is part of a recent trend that also includes the films “Vivo,” which came out in August, and “Encanto,” slated for release next month. All are animated stories by Latinos and about Latinos. All highlight the importance of women and girls to their communities and aim to counter Hollywood’s history of attempting to create unrealistically flawless characters of color (when it has created them at all).
And all three aim to dazzle and charm viewers with their narratives and aesthetics while also honoring distinct cultures and creating more complex portrayals of Latinos — in part, by reveling in their characters’ imperfections.
“When you’re only representing one film with one Hispanic character, that character has to be everything for everyone,” said Rebecca Perez, an “Encanto” animator. “And that’s not fair, because no one’s perfect. We all bring our broken pieces and our perfect pieces.”
When it came to creating the heroes of “Maya and the Three,” Gutiérrez, who also directed the series, received similar advice from his wife, animator and illustrator Sandra Equihua. (Gutiérrez grew up in Mexico City; Equihua is from Tijuana, Mexico.) Equihua designed the show’s lead female characters and served as a creative consultant.
“Early on, as a male writer, I go: ‘I’ve never had a female protagonist. I’ve got to make sure she’s perfect,’” Gutiérrez said in a joint video interview with Equihua, both of whom were in Los Angeles. “And she literally went: ‘What are you doing? You’re Mary Sue-ing this thing. You are making her flat as a character because she has no flaws — all the male characters are so flawed, they’re way more interesting.’”
Equihua had reminded Gutiérrez that he loved folk art because of its imperfections, and she pressed him to treat his protagonist the same way. So at times, Maya falters: She does bad things for good reasons.
As a society, “we’re realizing that there’s more layers than being the naysayer, the crybaby, Miss Perfect,” Equihua said. “There’s more layers to us as girls, as women, and we wanted to make sure that Maya was as human as possible.”
“Encanto,” a Disney film coming to theaters Nov. 24, tells the story of the Madrigal family, which lives in an enchanted town in the mountains of Colombia. The family matriarch, Abuela (María Cecilia Botero), arrived there after fleeing violence, losing her husband along the way.
The enchantment, bestowed upon Abuela to protect her from harm, has given a magical gift to each child in the family — except Mirabel. But when she realizes that the enchantment itself is in danger, Mirabel sets out to save her family.
Perez, one of the film’s animators, said that her Cuban grandparents came to the United States in very much the same fashion, packing their bags and giving up everything they knew.
“I made very conscious choices to be present in every meeting, and be authentically me,” Perez said in a video interview from Burbank, California. “Even if it meant being a little uncomfortable — both me being uncomfortable and the person I’m talking to, whether it be a director or producer, and expressing my point of view.
“Always respectful, but the only way you’re going to get to a great place is to go through the bumps. Then you’re going to have honest conversations.”
Perhaps without realizing it, Perez mirrored the experience of Mirabel Madrigal, the film’s bespectacled protagonist. In “Encanto,” conflict is resolved only through open, honest conversation between Mirabel and Abuela, bridging generational gaps amid a cloud of golden butterflies. The rest of the Madrigal family runs the gamut of body types, skin tones, hair colors, accents and magical powers.
Like “Encanto,” the Netflix film “Vivo” includes details that the average viewer might miss. Someone who is part of the relevant culture, however, will instantly pick them up. In “Encanto,” Mirabel gestures to a present for her younger cousin by pointing with her lips, a classic Colombian gesture. In “Vivo,” a Dominican American mother drives a car with a bumper sticker: the Dominican flag inside an outline of the country.
Carlos Romero, a story artist on “Vivo” of Dominican and Panamanian descent, loved the bumper sticker — he saw it everywhere growing up in the Bronx.
“It’s all about absorbing all of that and making sure we’re doing right by their culture,” he said. It was also important, he added, to make sure that “people from those different countries can watch this and feel pride, too — and feel like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s exactly someone I know,’ or, ‘That’s exactly what I’d say.’”
“Vivo” follows the unlikely adventures of a kinkajou named Vivo (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a musician from Cuba, and a girl named Gabi (Ynairaly Simo), an energetic Dominican American tween. When the two run away from home to deliver a long-lost love letter, Gabi’s mother, Rosa (Saldaña), becomes worried. Then she becomes upset.
There was a lot of worry on set, Romero said, surrounding Rosa’s emotions. Was she too angry, especially for a Dominican American woman on screen? Romero understood the desire to avoid stereotypes, he said, but he thought the portrayal was realistic: Any mother would furiously scour the city for her lost child.
“We need to show them as dimensional characters that experience fear; they experience worry and anxiety for their kid, pride when they do good,” Romero said. “You shouldn’t be afraid of touching all the emotions because Latinos are dimensional people that should be portrayed realistically onscreen.”
“And the more of them we get,” he added, “the less we have to worry about presenting them perfectly in our films.”