Iwájú IReview – A Refreshing Bold Take That Celebrates the Beauty of Animation and Storytelling

When Hamid Ibrahim, the co-founder of African entertainment company Kugali, claimed in 2019 his company would “kick Disney’s ass,” many people were shocked by the bold statement. Was this declaration of war from a burgeoning studio against one of the most powerful animation studios to be taken seriously? Known for entertaining generations and introducing the world to groundbreaking animation, Disney was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

“The reason I said that quote – kick Disney’s arse – a lot of people think I was joking when I said that, but I meant it,” Ibrahim told ABC in the documentary Iwájú: A Day Ahead. And that’s because Africa has a vast array of stories. Like, one of the most diverse cultures in the world, right? Because of the different countries in Africa. I picked Disney because Disney was a big boy in the space. If they were not going to tap into those stories, inevitably, at some point, we’re going to kick their you know what.”

Clearly, no one at Disney would actually take this seriously. But what if they did?

Ibrahim never imagined Disney calling him, nor would he even fathom a collaboration with the media giant. But that’s exactly what happened. Through this mutual embrace, the arrival of African stories on an American platform resulted in being one of the most refreshing, colorful, cultural, entertaining and heartfelt series to emerge.

At face value, Iwájú is an animated story set in a futuristic Lagos, Nigeria. The coming-of-age story follows Tola, a young girl from the wealthy island, and her best friend, Kole, a self-taught tech expert, as they discover the secrets and dangers hidden in their different worlds.

However, once you watch Iwájú, you realize this is a unique journey set in a world that deeply explores the themes of class, innocence, work/life balance and challenging the status quo that tests a father-daughter relationship while focusing on various perspectives of life in Nigeria. Inspired by the real city of Lagos, the culture capital of Nigeria, it’s mainland and island areas are its own a unique, distinct character that provide the social cultural and social political dynamics in Lagos. Opportunity, hope and love reside here and in its people.

When the series begins, we are introduced to Tola Martins (voiced by Simisola Gbadamosi), a 10-year-old girl who lives on an island with her wealthy and hard-working father, Tunde Martins (voiced by Dayo Okeniy). Their relationship is fractured due to Tunde’s work schedule and inability to balance being a present father. No longer a baby, Tola wants to visit the city, become more independent and spend more time with her father. Unfortunately, Tunde is constantly missing Tola’s life milestones, like birthday celebrations, he instead focuses on creating technology to rebuild his country that attempts to end crime in Lagos. He loves his daughter, but fearing being a disappointment to the company that gave him an opportunity as a young man weighs heavily on him.

Unlike Tola, her best friend, Kole (Siji Soetan) is part of the struggling working class. Similar to Tunde, he is a self-taught tech wunderkind, but he wasn’t given the same opportunities as Tunde. Instead of going to school, he works on the Martins’ estate to help his family make ends meet. “The privilege only sees the beauty, but they don’t see the price that must be paid to make it happen,” he proclaims. This invisible working class is prevalent throughout the series and Kole’s invisibility is further highlighted in Tunde’s disgust with seeing Kole eat in his dining room. But didn’t Tunde start out the same way as Kole? Has his success blinded him to who he once was and the class he once belonged to?

Despite his efforts to eradicate crime, Lagos isn’t yet the paradise he dreams it can become and his “technology brings opportunity” motto hasn’t reached every citizen. Like most cities across the world, poverty is still prevalent, and so is desperation and greed.

The relationships between the haves and the have nots are strained and has dangerous consequences for the Martins, as the most dangerous citizens of Lagos use Tunde’s technology to close their wealth gap. What proceeds is a coming-of-age story, a digital heist, in a futuristic landscape where sunglasses can reveal people’s net worth, children go missing in the city and a child’s kindness can forever change how a father sees the world.

While Iwájú tackles tough questions about the fairness of inequality, its structure follows a different character at the start of each episode, offering further insight into the decisions of that person. While a character might be misguided, the audience understands the reason behind their actions; the lines between villain and hero becomes blurred. In a way, the “villain” Bude DeSousa originally acts as a Thanos character, questing why he and other impoverished citizens should go without. His tactic to rob from the rich to give to the poor becomes misguided and eventually greed becomes all consuming. Does one person need all that wealth? He’s he becoming what he hates?

Wealth for some like Kole and his mother isn’t about accumulating materialistic possessions. It could save his mother’s life by providing for healthcare and allowing her to be an environment where the air quality is better. Is Kole wrong for wanting his mother to live?

In an interview with The Koalition, Ibrahim stated with a hero complex, “They have this idea they don’t like the world they’re born into; they’re going to change it but then when they find themselves in a more advantageous position suddenly the goalpost shifts, or they change their tune. It was very important to also showcase that perspective because despite how someone can come from unfortunate circumstances that can actually earn people’s sympathy, sometimes when we get a taste of wealth or power, it unleashes the inner greed that exist within us and can send us down a darker path.”

In just six 20-minute episodes, Iwájú is a marvelous series that’s delightful in its fast-paced storytelling and exceptional worldbuilding. Relationships are tested, bonds are formed, and allegiances shift making it unpredictable, surprising and leaves viewers longing for a second season.

It’s clear to understand why Disney would partner with Kugali; their love for this story, these characters and animation are profound. As an American, its invigorating to learn about Lagos, Nigeria’s food, architecture and detailed clothing. Each scene was created with a purpose that never goes to waste. Production designer Hamid Ibrahim, FX Supervisor Marlon West and cultural consultant Toluwalakin Olowofoyeku spearheaded a rich vibrant, crisp palette that showcase an array of colors. The Afrobeats soundtrack helps to set the mood of each scene and the Nigerian voice cast alleviate the script to new heights. In a world where Disney relies too heavily on sequels and spin-offs, Iwájú is must see Disney TV.

In addition to the series, also debuting February 28th on Disney+ is Iwájú: A Day Ahead, a documentary special filmed across three continents that shares the story of the founders of the Pan-African entertainment company, Kugali, who made their dream a reality creating an original animation series with Walt Disney Animation Studios. Created by the ABC News Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios team that brought you Into the Unknown: Making Frozen 2, the documentary shows anything is possible when talent meets opportunity. 

Iwájú‘s must-buy soundtrack will be available digitally on March 1st. The series’ authentic African-influenced music is by renowned Nigerian composer Ré Olunuga, whose credits include music for the 2022 Disney+ original movie Rise and the BBC film Girl.

To learn more about Iwájú, check out The Koalition’s interview and the AAFCA roundtable below with director Hamid Ibrahim, FX Supervisor Marlon West, director Hamid Ibrahim and cultural consultant Toluwalakin Olowofoyeku.

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