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Update (September 8, 2022): At the 2022 D23 expo, Disney revealed a first look at Iwaju, showing off the two young protagonists and a futuristic looking lizard creature, with flying drones around them. The show will premiere on Disney Plus sometime in 2023.
Last December, amid the fanfare of five new Marvel series and nine new Star Wars shows, Disney announced a partnership with the pan-African entertainment company. Kugalic create an animated science fiction series for Disney Plus. Located in a future Lagos, Nigeria, Iwájú would explore the ideas of class, innocence and challenge the status quo.
At this year’s Annecy Festival, Disney and Kugali’s creative leaders came together to talk about Iwájú and the collaboration between the two companies. Kugali was founded by three friends in Nigeria as a podcast aimed at exploring African entertainment. But co-founder Ziki Nelson realized after two seasons of the show that he had basically covered everything of importance in the African cultural landscape.
“We realized that the community didn’t really need someone to talk about the content,” he explained. “They needed someone to actually create that content.”
It’s rare for Disney Animation to partner with another studio in this way, given how tight in-house production has become in nearly a century.
“When I first joined Disney, everything was made in-house,” said Disney’s Chief Creative Officer and Frozen screenwriter Jennifer Lee. “The animation, the craft, the stories, it’s fantastic. When I entered that world, I was blown away. But I noticed a lack of diversity.”
As a woman, Lee said her own position as CCO was a big step, but now she wants to do even more. One of her major initiatives in her relatively new role is to ‘tell the stories of the word, but through people of the world’. She first came across Kugali while sipping morning coffee and reading the news, when a BBC headline caught her eye: “The African comic book Kugali hopes to take on Disney.”
“They said they were going to kick Disney’s… you know what,” Lee said. “And I was like, OKAY! Let’s connect.”
Sure enough, after that BBC interview went viral, both Nelson and production designer Hamid Ibrahim received messages from Disney via LinkedIn.
“At first we couldn’t believe it was Disney,” Ibrahim said. “The second thought was OK, I just called Disney… someone from Disney just emailed us… oh man, they’re coming for me.”
No one came for Kugali – at least not in the way Ibrahim was afraid. But while the studio was interested in a collaboration, Nelson was skeptical. Other studios had reached out, but none of the messages had turned into anything tangible, so Nelson initially believed this was just dialogue so Disney could keep an eye on them.
“From one meeting it went from two meetings to three meetings to four meetings,” he said. “I think that level of investment, you know someone isn’t meeting you over multiple time periods if they just want to waste time.”
According to creative advisor Tolu Olowofoyeku, as the process progressed, he and the other two founders realized that Disney had indeed invested in establishing some partnership. And it wasn’t just Disney trying to project its visions onto Kulagi. Disney even made a conscious effort to make it a real collaboration.
“They taught us how to pitch to them,” Olowofoyeku said. “They didn’t just leave us like, ‘OK, pitch, go.’ They taught us: ‘This is’ how you give a pitch, now To go.’”
Lee said the original idea was to have Kugali collaborate on a series of short films, but she was so impressed with the caliber of storytelling that she wanted to put together a full series.
“There were stories with themes that I had never put together that way, there was folklore that I never had access to,” she explained. “They came in with these ideas, each one of them was an epic feature in itself. We chose the one that best translated into a series. It was too exciting. Their storytelling and power is just so strong.”
Iwájú is set for release in 2022 on Disney Plus.