“Hakuna Matata,” a song about having no worries, is now bringing Disney worries.
An online petition urging Disney to drop its trademark on the Swahili phrase attracted more than 57,000 signatures as of Wednesday morning amid anticipation for the company’s upcoming live-action remake of “The Lion King.” (Yes, the one starring Donald Glover, James Earl Jones and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.) The petition states that the phrase has long been used by Swahili speakers in many African countries - Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and more - so Disney “can’t be allowed to trademark something that it didn’t invent.”
Disney originally applied to trademark “hakuna matata” for use on merchandise in 1994, the same year it released the original “Lion King.” It was eventually granted the trademark in 2003, by which point American audiences probably associated the phrase with the Elton John and Tim Rice tune sung by an animated meerkat and warthog.
But Disney wasn’t even the first to include the phrase in a musical number. Kenyan band Them Mushrooms featured “hakuna matata” in their popular song “Jambo Bwana (Hello Mister)” back in 1982.
The company has received similar criticism before. “Coco,” the successful Pixar collaboration released late last year, was initially titled “Dia de los Muertos” in reference to the Mexican holiday at the center of the film. Disney applied in 2013 to trademark the phrase, probably also for merchandising purposes, and backed down after backlash from the Latino community, led by Mexican American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, known for his comic “La Cucaracha.”
Pixar then hired Alcaraz and others to serve as cultural advisers on “Coco.” He now tells The Washington Post: “It was wrong to attempt to trademark ‘Dia de los Muertos’ for commerce, and it is wrong to attempt to trademark ‘Hakuna Matata,’ too.”
Perhaps even stranger, Disney sought out exclusive rights to “SEAL Team 6” just days after news broke of Osama bin Laden’s death. The name refers to the counterterrorism unit that captured and killed the al-Qaida leader, and Disney eventually withdrew its application “out of deference to the Navy.” (Disney’s plans once again included merchandise and, according to a Wall Street Journal source, a potential show on ABC.)
Disney has not yet returned The Post’s request for comment on the “hakuna matata” petition, but we’d also like to ask another question: What on earth is going on with the live-action “Aladdin”?
The Washington Post’s Michael Cavna contributed to this report.