Few things can become as iconic as a catchphrase in a popular movie, and few things are as certain as movie studios looking to cash in on the popularity of their films in any way possible, especially when that studio is the commercial and cultural behemoth that is Disney. One doesn't need to look far to see how they've established themselves at the forefront of our cultural consciousness and, crucially, quite near our wallets as well. And for the tremendous benefits that the company has accrued itself through its aggressive branding, it has made missteps in its quest towards cultural domination.
In response to the studio's upcoming live-action remake of The Lion King, Disney is facing new scrutiny and criticism over its trademarking of the phrase "hakuna matata" in 1994. As reported in Deadline, a Zimbabwean activist, Shelton Mpala, has started an online petition asking Disney to relinquish the trademark on the Swahili phrase. At issue is the appropriation of the phrase by an American conglomerate in an effort to enrich themselves, in what can be seen as a continuation of a larger trend of cultural appropriation that has long existed beyond this particular instance. At present, Mpala's petition has over 185,000 signatures.
Disney has responded to the pressure by citing other instances and uses of the phrase being trademarked, and by noting other phrases that have been trademarked and continued to be used in the lexicon in a statement to CNBC. And while the company's statements might be strictly true, it is important to note that the conversations taking place around the phrase and the trademark are taking place in 2019, not 1994. It's no stretch to say that the broader awareness of cultural and social issues have changed in the interceding twenty-five years, and companies are facing pressures as never before to be, if not positive actors in our society, at least net neutrals.
Ultimately, Disney will do what it thinks is in its best interest, which is to say what is in the best interest of its bottom line and its shareholders. The trademark is suddenly relevant again with the upcoming release of the live-action Lion King, and recent history has shown that studios abhor nothing so much as negative press accompanying the release of their prospective blockbusters. It remains to be seen whether Disney will sacrifice this sliver of their IP portfolio for a measure of good will, or whether they hope that the controversy stays contained overseas.