Stunted Protagonist and Divided Attention Taint Afolayan’s Ambition In “Aníkúlápó: Rise of the Spectre”

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Aníkúlápó: Rise of the Spectre, a Netflix epic series sequel to the 2022 film Aníkúlápó, is set in the 17th century and follows the adventure of the protagonist, Saro (Kunle Remi), particularly his return to life on another mission and his sojourn in a new community. The six-part series, produced and directed by Kunle Afolayan, navigates power tussles, political tensions, survival, adventure and destiny. 

The film commences with the second death of Saro as well as Arolake’s (Bimbo Ademoye) quest for survival. In the early scenes, the use of deus ex machina is noticeable as it facilitates the reanimation of Saro. But this time around, it isn’t the wonders of the mystical akala bird. After Olubode (Damilola Ogunsi), a spiritual gatekeeper stationed at the ethereal entry, mandates Saro’s spirit to take back the lives he restored on earth before he gains access to the afterlife, the spirit roams the earth as a messenger of death until he encounters a woman with whom he negotiates a restoration of his human form as akudaaya. Here’s the paradox: the life saver has become the life taker. In traditional Yoruba society, the akudaaya is a belief that revolves around the dead returning to life to carry out an unfinished assignment or complete a task which its human form failed to do in its former life. The akudaaya is often regenerated in a place far away from where people know about his death in his previous existence, and he may start a family and even have children. As Saro assumes this new humanoid identity, he moves to Ilu Aje where he becomes a palm wine trader and starts a new home with his rival’s daughter, Olatorera (Oyindamola Sanni).

Afolayan’s presentation of Saro in the series is rather laidback and uninspiring as the character does not seem to have experienced psychological growth. He remains susceptible to lustful desires, which are his Achilles heel in the previous installment of the franchise, and egoistical. In the 2022 film, the ego-driven Saro conditions Oba Aderoju (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) of Ojumo, the land of his sojourn, to give his daughter to him in marriage before attempting to resurrect the dead prince. A similar ego trip animates the series, as the same protagonist forsakes his divine assignment of having to kill the 20 people he resurrected and decides to enjoy an extra three-year earthly existence himself. But this time around, the filmmaker does not give as much spotlight to the strengths of the protagonist as he did in the 2022 film where the protagonist amassed fame and wealth for the special powers stolen from akala

While the expansive nature of the series takes a detractive toll on the lead character, Saro, making him appear less prominent and consequential to the franchise, it paves way for the development of new characters like Bashorun Ogunjimi (Owobo Ogunde), Awolaran (Lateef Adedimeji) and Akin (Gabriel Afolayan) and story arcs such as Basorun’s quest for power, Awolaran’s differences with his father, Prince Kuranga’s (Uzee Usman) failed marriage to Princess Omowunmi (Eyiyemi Afolayan), and the murder of Prince Kuranga. There’s also the brewing tension between Ede and Oyo, which the filmmaker might be inclined to explore, perhaps as full-scale hostilities, in Season 2.

The most outstanding character in the series is Bashorun Ogunjimi, the Oyo warlord, thanks to the actor Owobo Ogunde, son of the legendary thespian Hubert Ogunde, who embodies the role. Unlike in many Yoruba films made over the past years where the Bashorun character is often loudmouthed and uncouth, Owobo Ogunde presents a version of the character that is composed and introspective yet fearful and charismatic. In the series, attention constantly drifts away from Saro and Arolake in their respective places and settles on the warlord and his actions as an antagonist. While he holds grudges against Alaafin (Taiwo Hassan), Bashorun seeks to possess Saro’s resurrection powers and masterminds the death of Prince Kuranga, an enemy of his. It doesn’t take long before the warlord’s villainous proclivities, including his eagerness to have the wanted Arolake put to death, catch up with him. But the problem with the downfall of this behemoth in the series lies in how easily he is killed without much resistance or defence. This compromises any perception of awe which the filmmaker might want the audience to have for Bashorun.

Some moments in the series appear superfluous or prolonged and the conversations are dragged. One of such moments is Arolake’s journey through the forests during which she remembers Saro and she gets teleported into a world of bizarre creatures. Conversations involving Fasogbon the priest and other characters such as the Alaafin, Oyo Mesi and Bashorun are often slowed-down. Another concern is how the priest spends time talking about the doom brought about by the provocation of akala whereas the film shows no scenes of the Oyo townspeople facing mysterious deaths and illnesses. All these moments are both a blessing and a curse: suspense is sustained, tensions are curated, but then the audience are kept in needless anticipation of what is to come. For instance, after Arolake settles in Oyo in disguise, there is already a strong feeling that her identity will be unraveled—a scenario which makes a petty case for predictability. But the series feels more immersed in its own aesthetic grandeur and mystical aura, with the traditionally relatable costumes, props, tribal marks, special effects and cinematography all masking its fallibility. Creatives like Hakeem Onilogbo Effect, the brains behind such transformations as the two-headed monster encountered by Arolake and the rotten corpse of Saro; Mike Downie, director of photography; and Teledalase Odundipe, the soundtrack artiste, deserve credits for their glamorous contributions to the project.

Over the years, Afolayan has established himself as a Nollywood revolutionary and one of Africa’s foremost contemporary filmmakers. From Irapada to The Figurine, October 1 and Ìjọ̀gbọ̀n, the filmmaker has shown relentless interest in myth and African spirituality. But it is the Aníkúlápó franchise that first explores this sentiment to full-fledged epic length. The latest series is evidence of his malleability, as the filmmaker proves that beyond being capable of carving golden Nollywood stories with international appeal, he is a businessman with acute awareness of where, when and how to tap from other creatives. The premise of Aníkúlápó: Rise of the Spectre, courtesy of both Sola Dada and Afolayan, is an audacious one, setting the pace for autochthonous storytelling in the era of New Nollywood. The series is a rollercoaster of high-octane hopes and letdowns given its expanded scope and the de-emphasis of the franchise’s foremost character. It doesn’t make a showstopper, but it provides an admissible template on which the filmmaker can erect more compelling episodes and sagas with the protagonist actively involved. A first step has already been  taken in what Afolayan foresees as a long haul. But only time will decide the fate of the franchise.