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'Iwájú' on Disney+: Disney Animation's first collaboration outside the studio in 100 years is a futuristic Nigerian adventure

"Creating an environment where people feel the freedom to actually express themselves allows us to get the most out of the show," Olufikayo Ziki Adeola said

For the first time in Walt Disney Animation Studios' 100-year history, a new series has been created with collaboration outside the studio, titled Iwájú, now streaming on Disney+.

Disney

Watch Iwájú on Disney+, plans starting at $7.99/month

$8 at Disney+

Created with the company Kugali, this partnership really started with a bit of a bold statement made by CEO Hamid Ibrahim, who leads the production design on Iwájú, who said in a BBC interview that the company known for its comics and animation would "kick Disney’s a** in Africa."

But the statement caught Disney's attention and led to the release of this six-part series. Along with Ibrahim, Kugali's creative director Olufikayo Ziki Adeola serves as the director and co-writer of Iwájú, and the company's president, Toluwalakin Olowofoyeku, is the cultural consultant for the series.

"It surprised me how open they were to learning," Olowofoyeku told Yahoo Canada about working with Disney Animation. "Every step of the way."

"When we wanted to design the logo for Iwájú, I remember when the people that designed logos for things like The Lion King, way back, the same set of people were in a meeting with us to design the Iwájú logo. And they were asking us what we thought. Should we do it like this? What do you think about it? And we're like, wait, you are asking me? You literally designed the logo of The Lion King when I was a kid, and you're asking me what I think. With that disposition, it made the work very easy because we could just bring the story we wanted to tell, the elements from Lagos, and Disney Animation has the experience and the resources to create this in high quality visuals."

Iwájú is an all-new original long-form series created in collaboration with Pan-African comic book entertainment company Kugali. Kugali filmmakers Olufikayo Ziki Adeola, Hamid Ibrahim and Tolu Olowofoyeku call the series a love letter to Lagos, Nigeria. (Disney)
Iwájú is an all-new original long-form series created in collaboration with Pan-African comic book entertainment company Kugali. Kugali filmmakers Olufikayo Ziki Adeola, Hamid Ibrahim and Tolu Olowofoyeku call the series a love letter to Lagos, Nigeria. (Disney)

What is 'Iwájú' about?

Iwájú is an animated series set in Lagos, Nigeria, with a futuristic spin, largely focused on a coming-of-age story centred around Tola (voiced by Simisola Gbadamosi), a young girl who lives with her father Tunde, a tech executive, on the wealthy island.

Tola has developed a friendship with Kole (voiced by Siji Soetan), a self-taught tech expert, but she ends up getting wrapped up in villain Bode's criminal underworld.

Each episode is focused on a different character's past, while still moving the present day narrative forward, in order to provide more context on how each character came to be where they are.

"This is a very character-driven story, I wanted people to understand the various layers of the characters," Adeola explained. "One of the funniest things I hear is sometimes people will be like, 'did it occur to you that that person used to be a baby?'"

"The reason why I bring this up is because we change and evolve as we grow as people, and so I don't want people to just only see, for example, Tunde comes across as very disagreeable in the first couple of episodes, but then we see a different side to him in the flashback because we have to remember he was once a younger man who would have had a completely different disposition. And similarly with Bode as well, we see him as this villainous character, but then we look at his past and we realize that actually, there are reasons to empathize or even sympathize with his perspective."

Disney

Watch Iwájú on Disney+, plans starting at $7.99/month

$8 at Disney+

An absolute highlight in the series is the way that we see incredibly detailed visuals of animated Lagos, including a particularly impressive aerial shot that shows the difference between the mainland and the wealthy island, but with incredibly well integrated futuristic elements, including flying cars, and robots that help Tola pick out her outfit and cook.

"I wanted to make it as believable as possible," Ibrahim said. "You have to capture the soul of where it's coming from."

"So by capturing the soul of Lagos and just evolving all those special things, specifically about Lagos, in a futuristic element, it keeps it feeling very real and very fresh."

"An example I'll give, ... is a lot of sci-fi films have flying cars in them. ... In this story, every single tech element we added, including flying cars, is because this is in Lagos. So Lagos are some of the worst traffic anywhere. ... And if the traffic is insane and you're rich enough to fly over that traffic, believe me, you'll open up your wheels and fly, just like in the show."

(Pictured, L-R): Olufikayo Ziki Adeola, Toluwalakin Olofoyeku, and Hamid Ibrahim for Iwájú on Disney+ (Emily Shur. © 2024 Emily Shur)
(Pictured, L-R): Olufikayo Ziki Adeola, Toluwalakin Olofoyeku, and Hamid Ibrahim for Iwájú on Disney+ (Emily Shur. © 2024 Emily Shur)

'People feel the freedom to actually express themselves'

In a documentary about the making of Iwájú, titled Iwájú: A Day Ahead, we see that Olowofoyeku's work to make the series as authentic as possible also includes allowing the Nigerian voice actors provide their own thoughts on the best lines for their characters.

"Sometimes if someone hires you to do a job, you're going to do what you think the person wants you to do, because they hired you," Olowofoyeku explained "If you're given a script and a line in the script, you feel like, nah, a character in this situation in Lagos wouldn't talk like this, but that's what you see in the script, so you will still read it that way."

"Ziki who wrote the script is from Lagos, but he spent a good portion of his life in the U.K. So he might not write things 100 per cent the way people still talk in Lagos today. ... He also had a co-writer who is from the U.S. ... I just wanted to encourage the voice actors that ... you first read it the way it is in the script, ... but then after that, make a suggestion. ... So just encouraging them to have the boldness to be like, actually, I think this take will be better than what's in the script."

Adeola added that mentality extended to all aspects of the production of the series, the thinking that "there's no such thing as a bad idea."

"At the very least, we need to create that environment where people feel comfortable enough to showcase their thoughts, because that's why we're collaborating, ... we're trying to leverage everyone's strengths," he said.

"So creating an environment where people feel the freedom to actually express themselves allows us to get the most out of the show. Specifically on the the side of authenticity, Lagos is a huge place. This is a huge culture that we're aiming to represent, so it's too big of a job for one person to hold on their shoulders. ... The fact that we have so many people, from artists to the voice talent as well, that have experiences living in Lagos, or at least other parts of of Nigeria, allows us to leverage their collective experience to make the show even more authentic."