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How the Creators of ‘Iwájú’ Challenged Disney — Then Collaborated With Them

“Iwájú,” a new animated series on Disney+, is unlike anything else on the service. And really, it’s unlike anything in the history of Disney Animation – a collaborative project between Walt Disney Animation Studios, Kugali Media (a Pan-African, British-based entertainment company) and Cinesite (a long-running visual effects and animation studio headquartered in England). A truly global affair, “Iwájú” imagines a futuristic Lagos, Nigeria, where a 10-year-old finds herself embroiled in a high-stakes, technologically advanced tug-of-war.

And it all started with some good, old-fashioned trash talk.

Hamid Ibrahim, cocreator of “Iwájú” and the project’s production designer, said in 2019 that Kugali wanted to “kick Disney’s ass.” But Jennifer Lee, chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios (and director of “Frozen”), wasn’t offended — she was intrigued. In 2020, “Iwájú” was announced as the first original series from Walt Disney Animation Studios, made in collaboration with Kugali.

After the public call-out, “a very, very organic and natural dialogue ensues over the course of several months, and they get to know us a bit better or a lot better, and we get to know them a lot better,” said Olufikayo “Ziki” Adeola, Kugali’s creative director and the cowriter/director of the series.

“I think what they learned from us is that we were not only ambitious, but we were authentic in our approach to creativity and we’re bringing something new to the table,” Adeola explained. “But what we learned from Disney Animation is that they truly believe in the magic and power of storytelling. And all they want to do is tell the best stories and empower the best storytellers. In that spirit, they offered us the opportunity to collaborate. And having taken this time to know them, it was very much a no-brainer to engage in this collaboration.”

Disney invited the Kugali team to pitch them a few ideas. The one that Disney chose was “Iwájú,” which Adeola said “made the most sense for the agreement that we had.” The title of the series roughly translates to “the future” in the Yoruba language common to Southwestern and Central Nigeria. Four-and-a-half years after agreeing to the project, “we have a limited television series,” Adeola said.

Watching the credits for “Iwájú,” there are tons of names that are probably new to you. But you’ll also see the names of genuinely legendary Disney animators like Marlon West, an effects animator who oversaw mind-boggling work like the waves in “Moana” and who got his start on “The Lion King.” You’ll also spot head of story Natalie Nourigat, who recently made the special short film “Far From the Tree” that dealt with generational trauma through some adorable raccoons.

Some people from Disney wanted to work on “Iwájú” based on the pitch, while there were others the Kugali team desperately wanted — like West.

“Marlon saw the pitches we did internally, and he said that he could not watch this on Disney+ when it comes out without him having worked on it, because he’s ticked so many boxes in the kind of stories he like to tell,” Ibrahim said. (Ibrahim did not threaten to kick West’s as, we assume.)

“He worked on the original ‘Lion King.’ And that film actually inspired me to fall in love with animation. You can imagine working with somebody, you’re going to have creative differences, because you come from different places,” Ibrahim said. “Marlon knew I wanted the best for the story. I knew Marlon wanted the best first story. He came in with all this wisdom. And I came in with all these crazy ideas. And the best ideas came from there. And it was always that weird feeling with working with a Disney heavy-hitters where it’s like, these are your heroes, but you have to be strong to portray the authentic story you want to portray, and the authentic vision you have, and making sure that comes through.”

“Iwájú” is full of authenticity and moments that make the story feel real, grounding it in an honest place. That makes the more fantastical elements come to life. There’s one that stood out, where the two main characters are having a meal. Before they go, they dip their hands in a bowl of water in a deeply culturally specific moment.

Tolu Olowofoyeku, cultural consultant for “Iwájú” and member of the Kugali team, said, “From the sci-fi perspective, when we were designing all the tech, we made sure we were basing it on, ‘OK, if we know what real life Legos is like, if things progressed at the pace they’re going, 100 years into the future, what kind of tech would exist that would make sense in Lagos?’” He pointed to the flying cars, which are meant to combat Lagos’ notoriously awful traffic jams.

Olowofoyeku said that they looked to anime as inspiration for how to deal with the language in the series, since fans of Japanese animation tend to watch it in Japanese with subtitles turned on. Same with Bollywood films.

“If people enjoy good quality stories from another region, in another language, just because the story itself is good, and the visuals and everything is good, then there is no reason they will not enjoy our own story, if we just keep everything authentic. So we keep the language intact,” Olowofoyeku said. The characters in the series speak a pidgin dialect that toggles between English and Yoruba interchangeably. “Because that’s the way people talk in Lagos.”

He pointed to moments where character drink from a little bag of water (“That’s what I drink all the time”). “We knew that as long as the story itself was good, people would absorb the rest,” Olowofoyeku said.

A production designer who mentored Ibrahim warned him to be wary of unnecessary detail or shots that would take away from something more important. But the moment with the bowl of water was actually super important to the team, especially since they referred to the series as “a love letter to Lagos.”

“Here, it actually hits the culture of Lagos and makes you understand the world a lot deeper,” Ibrahim said. “That’s one of those places, we’re like, Yep, let’s put something on there. Let’s make sure that one doesn’t disappear.”

The other aspect of “Iwájú” that is so refreshing is its intensity. It deals with real-world issues, including class and the character’s station in life — and does so in a way that never feels too cuddly.

While Adeola and the Kugali team worked on the intial versions of the scripts, he said, “Disney were able to refine it in a way where we could balance the fact that we have some of these harsher themes and darker topics with the fact that, end of the day, we still want people to watch this and have fun.”

Adeola added: “I think this is where the history of Disney came in handy, because Disney has a very long history of telling stories that actually, if you really think about them, could potentially be quite scary. But then somehow you watch it as a child and you’re not particularly traumatized.

“Personally, I think there’s sometimes a tendency to underestimate what children have the capacity to watch or understand,” he continued, adding, “because I think back to my 8-year-old self and many of the things that I was exposed to, but was able to handle. I definitely tried my best to push the envelope as much as possible. And if I if I went a little bit too far, then there will be folks at Disney who would help pull it back.”

Where “Iwájú” ended up was in just the right place.

All episodes of “Iwájú” are streaming on Disney+ now. There’s also a terrific, feature-length making-of documentary, “Iwájú: A Day Ahead” from the folks who made the brilliant “Frozen 2” documentary “Into the Unknown,” also on Disney+.

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