Disney, Africa’s Kugali Reveal First Look at Sci-Fi Series ‘Iwaju’

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Walt Disney Animation Studios and the pan-African entertainment company Kugali revealed the first images of their hotly anticipated Disney Plus original series “Iwájú” during a presentation Wednesday night at the Annecy Animation Festival.

Set in a futuristic version of Lagos, Nigeria, the series offers what production designer Hamid Ibrahim described as a “Kugali-Disney mash-up.” “This is a true collaboration. It’s not Disney in some ways pushing our vision onto Kugali,” said Walt Disney Animation Studios’ chief creative officer Jennifer Lee. “It is a collaboration in that both companies are getting something out of it and supporting each other.”

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During the presentation, the show’s creators revealed a sneak peek at their futuristic vision of Lagos, a sprawling mega-city that straddles a lagoon and is divided into a densely populated mainland and a more affluent island. “That physical separation…means that we have a very unique set-up for storytelling already built into the DNA of the real-life Lagos,” said Kugali co-founder and “Iwájú” cultural consultant Tolu Olowofoyeku. Writer-director and co-founder Ziki Nelson said the creative team was “building a futuristic world rooted in the contemporary setting.”

Ibrahim revealed the first images of a metropolis whose glittering towers soar above the crowded cityscape below, and showed off the sleek flying cars and augmented reality glasses that will be a feature of daily life in the Lagos of “Iwájú.”

Though details of the storyline and its main characters are still under wraps, Nelson said the plot would focus on the inequality that is a “feature of everyday life in Nigeria,” as well as “challenging the status quo.” “It’s really about that inspiration, or aspiration and desire, to try and engineer society for living in a more positive way,” he said.

Working remotely across three continents, production on “Iwájú” includes creatives in Burbank, London, Montreal, Lagos, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The aesthetic draws on Kugali’s signature comic-book style, which Nelson described as a “visual experience that you can’t really find anywhere else,” borrowing on both Eastern and Western art styles while incorporating “traditional African art styles that we’ve infused into that aesthetic.” Disney VFX supervisor Marlon West (“Frozen, “Frozen 2”) added, “It may not look like a Disney film, but it needs to look like Disney quality…. We’re going to bring our A-game.”

The childhood friends Nelson and Olowofoyeku began their collaboration with a podcast focused on comics, video games, and animation from across the African continent and diaspora, before shifting gears. “We realized that what the community needed wasn’t someone to talk about the content and put it on the map. They needed someone to actually create the content,” said Nelson. The partners rebranded and soon launched as the comic book company Kugali.

Lee recalled her first encounter with the creators, when she came across a BBC story about an African comic book company that was hoping to take on Disney, in which one of the co-founders insisted they were going to “kick Disney’s you-know-what.” “I was like, ‘OK, let’s connect,’” she said, laughing.

The Disney exec was soon “blown away by their storytelling,” noting that “there were stories with themes that I had never seen put together in that way. There were ideas [based on] folklore that I had never had access to.” The company’s vision, she added, dovetailed with her own philosophy for the venerable animation house. “We, as Disney, can tell the stories of the world, but by the people of the world, and having people tell their own stories,” she said.

Head of story Natalie Nourigat, whose animated short “Far From the Tree” premiered at Annecy on Tuesday and will be released in theaters with Disney’s “Encanto” this fall, described “Iwájú” as an example of an ever growing “hunger for authenticity, and…for new stories.”

“This project is proof that there is a place for whatever story you want to tell in the world, and there’s a hunger for it,” she added. “If you’re not seeing yourself represented, if you’re not seeing something that’s true to you represented, or something that you care about represented, please make it.”

The Mouse House showed it was redoubling its drive for more diverse storytelling on Thursday, with an announcement first revealed by Variety that it’s partnering with a crop of rising African toon talents on “Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire,” a Disney Plus Original anthology of animated films set to premiere on the company’s streaming platform in late 2022.

Inspired by the continent’s diverse histories and cultures, the 10-part anthology is an action-packed collection of sci-fi and fantasy stories that will present bold visions of advanced technology, aliens, spirits and monsters imagined from uniquely African perspectives. Oscar-winning director Peter Ramsey (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) will serve as executive producer.

Speaking during the Annecy Festival on Wednesday, Lee acknowledged that both Disney and the animation industry as a whole have had a “struggle to diversify.” “There’s so much more we can do in storytelling if we diversify our storytellers,” she said.

She channeled the words of the company’s founder, who said that “storytelling must continue to evolve,” when noting that Disney’s unprecedented global reach offers a platform for a wider range of storytellers to “reach the world.”

“There’s so many different filmmakers, artists out there, who have a voice that we can help the world hear,” she said. The benefits flow both ways, she added, noting that the collaboration with Kugali has “made us better storytellers at Disney…[by] shaking up how we work.” “It’s making us move towards the future.”

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