Say “Disney,” and, immediately, everyone is scrambling to voice their opinion. There have been hundreds of lists like this, so, really, this is just for my own, personal enjoyment than anything else, but I’m hopeful that a few others get a kick out of it as well.
In trying to compose a list that felt right, I wanted to go by a certain list of criteria: what makes one Disney song “better” than another? The most memorable songs should be taken into consideration; the factor of recognition among the Disney brand. But to what end? If I just went on that basis, then I’d have a list of nothing but love songs most likely, ending with “When You Wish Upon A Star,” so I wanted to incorporate a little bit more into my reasoning. The list I have is a combination of songs tinged with nostalgia that are most successful at gaining an emotional reaction from the audience, be they young or old, and making you feel, combined with a facet of cultural significance; songs that are about something and have the capability of crossing the generation gap (at least to a certain degree).
*Note: these are also all songs from the films we know as “Disney Animated Musicals.” I’m deliberately not including live-action Disney musicals or animated movies that are not musicals (i.e. The Rescuers, Robin Hood, Treasure Planet).
So, are you ready?
- Starting with a bang: The Mob Song (Beauty and the Beast)
This is one of those songs that most people remember, but don’t often think about it in a context such as “top ten Disney songs.” And why? To me, this is one of the most intense sequences in any of Disney’s animated films. It’s not exactly up there with the “Pleasure Island” scene in Pinocchio (that one still gives me nightmares), but it amazes me, still, how well this piece exemplifies the power of propaganda and the use of fear as a source of power and manipulation, going on to demonstrate the psychology of two sides gearing up for battle. The speed at which Gaston is able to convince the entire town that they must, in the middle of the night, leave their village to lay siege to a castle and kill the master therein. They don’t even question it: they just give in to their fears upon which he’s preying. The scary thing about all this, too, is that you can compare this with the use of modern media. It’s very much like “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man and how easily Harold Hill convinces the town that the Pool Table is the source of all their problems. It’s the same structure and just as effective and that’s why it’s on my list.
- Two Worlds (One Family) (Tarzan)
The entire soundtrack to Tarzan is fairly underrated, I think. It gets a lot of flack for not being done in the same theatrical style as the other films, but Tarzan as a stage-like musical doesn’t necessarily work, given the subject matter; which is why I think the idea of them putting it, literally, on stage was one of the strangest things they could have done. Seriously, Tarzan? On stage? It’s been hard enough for filmmakers to get that character right in cinematic adaptations! Besides which, there are so many other films that would have worked SO much better on stage. At least, I think that’s so.
So, why, then, did I list this song here? Because while it isn’t theatrical in style, Tarzan is still technically in the “animated musicals” category. The musical numbers are frequent in the movie and they serve as storytelling elements, even if not sung by the characters directly (with the exception of ‘Trashin’ the Camp’.) I pick this one, too, because of how universal it is, both to the film (as it bookends the movie as well as plays as an orchestral theme during various scenes) and outside of the film and the importance of unity in even our modern world.
And, at the end of the day, the opening sequence to Tarzan, with this song, is one of my favorites out all of the animated features. Very powerful, very setting-aware and it was nice to hear a strong use of percussion in a Disney soundtrack.
- Part Of Your World (The Little Mermaid)
Confession: I went out of my way to ensure this song was on this list as it is, without a doubt, one of my personal favorites. The Little Mermaid was the first film I saw in theaters and therefore it has a special place in my heart.
I’ll note, too, the significance of the song for anyone who doesn’t know by now: the song was nearly cut from the film and, like Somewhere Over The Rainbow, it’s rather difficult to imagine this film – and Disney animation – without it. Part of Your World (and The Little Mermaid as a whole) really set up the new structure of the animated musical in the ’90s. Beauty and the Beast tends to get the most credit for that, but this was the film that really made it possible. This was the first film with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken in charge of music and lyrics and it established how the Disney formula would be written for the next two decades…and beyond.
Did I just make an inadvertent Pixar pun?
Anyway, as common as that fact seems to be known now, it’s still true and still relevant. This song epitomizes the first-act solo of the ingenue, the Disney Heroine telling us what she wants and why we should care about her – which we always do. Ironically, Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle does not get this kind of ballad. She gets a miniature version of one through the reprise of the song Belle, but Ariel gets to really belt it out here and it is a landmark in the Disney Songbook.
- It’s a tie! Why Should I Worry / Down in New Orleans
(Oliver & Company) / (The Princess and the Frog)
Surprised to see a tie between these two? I lump them together because of the way in which they each represent the cities in which the films are set. ‘Why Should I Worry’ completely embodies the aggressive but indifferent, rough but cool vibe of New York City (and the song was recorded in the 80s, remember) while ‘Down In New Orleans’ really does capture the vibrant, multifaceted style of Louisiana; and I do mean style. Both of these films are rather intentionally atmospheric, taking advantage of the environment, both visually and musically. Why Should I Worry has always been one of my favorite Disney songs and I wish it got more recognition. ‘Down in New Orleans’ was up for an Oscar nomination (as Disney songs usually are) and it neglected to win, which never sat right with me.
- Colors of the Wind (Pocahontas)
The stigma around this movie is almost a physical entity, and I refuse to engage in that debate; whether or not Pocahontas is a good movie is not the point of this exercise.
This song, taken out of context, is still incredibly powerful. Period. The music is stirring and the lyrics speak, not just to nature, but to the values of life in the abstract: don’t take things for granted, see the beauty in the things around you. The song is something of a challenge; daring you to question your worldview.
- Almost There (The Princess and the Frog)
You may be surprised that this song is scoring so high on the list, but I have a good reason: though new to the Disney Songbook, it is one of the few Disney ballads, sung by the heroine, pointedly NOT about finding a prince, love or getting married. It’s not even about getting out from under the thumb of a singular oppressor. ‘Part of your World’ also does this, but not to the same extent. Tiana’s expression is far more modern and forward-thinking. She says in the first line of the song that she has no time for socializing (“that’s just gonna have to wait awhile”) as her career is literally what she’s after, working hard to reach her goal. Not only that, but she makes a subtle point that she is a woman, fully aware of that fact and darn proud of it (“look out, boys, I’m comin’ through!”).
- The human world? It’s a mess. Under the Sea (The Little Mermaid)
This song is actually deceptively powerful; not only is the music technically, tonally, rhythmically, brilliant, but the point of this song is about valuing what you have; appreciating the blessings and beauty around you. In the context of the movie, it’s easy for this message to go unappreciated, given that we’re rooting for Ariel and the goals she’s striving to reach. Not to mention that the song completely encapsulates the sound of the Caribbean.
- A Whole New World (Aladdin)
This one set the bar for Disney duets. I have yet to hear one that even comes close. A Whole New World is the epitome of a couple falling in love; looking into the adventure ahead and daring to dive in, to face the risks to reap the rewards. I remember seeing the footage of this song being recorded and that was one of those early influences that sparked my curiosity for “making of” specials as a kid and would lead to my interest in filmmaking as an adult.
Somehow, though, this song is more impactful and more transcending than something like ‘So This Is Love,’ from Cinderella (which, for the record, I did seriously consider for this list). ‘A Whole New World’ still asks the question through most of it; it’s one party asking the other to take the chance, to embark on the journey and, in that sense, it actually still drives the story forward. They don’t fall in love, head-over-heels just in the duration of this song. Not as much as some others, anyway. The song is essentially the courtship itself, the invitation.
And just try and listen to this song and not get caught up in it. I dare you.
- Who am I kidding? Beauty and the Beast (Beauty and the Beast)
This is probably the most iconic song in the entire Disney songbook, probably second only to ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ (Pinocchio). It encapsulates completely the idea of falling in love and, for me, what I like most is that it’s sung from the third-person perspective, rather than one of the characters actually in the midst of the throes of love. Angela Lansbury didn’t want to record this song; she felt she was wrong for it and yet the result of her voice singing this piece is phenomenal. It’s a song that crosses the generation gap and will probably continue to do so for years to come (the pop version was also the catalyst for Celine Dion’s career, which has helped instill its cultural impact).
- So, what could beat Beauty and the Beast?
Circle of Life (The Lion King)
The sheer power of this song still moves me to tears almost every time I listen to it. The Lion King was another benchmark in both the Disney filmography and songbook. This is probably the most powerful opening of any Disney film and it accomplishes the goal of completely transporting the audience to the setting and context in which the film will be set; where you will be spending the next ninety minutes.
Out of the film’s specific context, however, the song itself conveys a philosophical message, more potent and – dare I say – spiritual than almost any other; far more effectively than anything in The Hunchback of Notre Dame anyway. It’s somewhat sneaky in that, given that most people listen to it and don’t really consider the deeper meaning of it. The musicality of it is SO powerful, but when you actually take a second look at it, the words are just as moving, even without the melody.
So that’s my list.
What do you think? Did I miss anything?
For what it’s worth, here are some Honorable Mentions.
(in no particular order)
- Let It Go (Frozen)
I really just couldn’t fit it onto the list, but I do really love this song. Had I seen Frozen as a child, the soundtrack would have been my entire world. I love how, like Almost There, it is such a strong message of encouragement for young girls to embrace one’s individuality, inner power and that Elsa, as a character, is not even remotely concerned with finding a Prince. The fandom has paired her up with Jack Frost from Rise of the Guardians (to which I’m not exactly opposed or anything) but in the film’s own universe, she is a unique, independent woman and ‘Let it Go’ is her anthem.
- Zero to Hero (Hercules)
To anyone who wants to argue this point with me, I say: BRING IT. It is a pet peeve of mine when people dismiss the soundtrack to Hercules. Again, the value of the film itself is not the topic up for discussion here. I’m talking about the music and the decision to use Gospel DOES make sense; in fact, I don’t understand the confusion. Yes, it’s not necessarily a literal interpretation of Greek culture, but think about it: would typical Broadway-style been any more fitting? No; in fact, Gospel is actually rather brilliant if you stop and really think about it. Gospel is spiritual expression in musical form and the Muses in the film function as the metaphorical Greek Chorus, featured in the plays of the Ancient Greeks, which were almost always focused on the Gods and the mythology of Ancient Greece. Furthermore, the film is about Greek Gods and Goddesses; the protagonist is trying to prove his godliness to get into Mount Olympus so…why not make the Muses sing in a spiritual music style? Again: it’s actually rather smart. And, at the end of the day, it is definitely among the most distinct of Disney’s soundtracks.
- God Help The Outcasts (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
It’s hard not to look at this one in combination with the animation; it is a stunning part of Disney’s animation. The depiction of the interior of Notre Dame Cathedral, both in this sequence and in the film as a whole, is absolutely breathtaking, particularly in regards to the treatment of light and it’s only relevant here because of the way in which the beauty of the song is matched so eloquently with the beauty onscreen. It is not necessarily the most perfect of voices nor is Hunchback one of the more reputable of the animated films, but the song – for what it is, being a vocal prayer – is, like the animation, hauntingly beautiful and deserves credit for that.
- After Today (A Goofy Movie)
I dig the entire soundtrack to this movie. No shame. This one, though, really sums up the experience of being a kid and longing for the ever-anticipated summer vacation. More properly in one song, I think, than in all of High School Musical. But that’s just me.
- He Mele No Lilo (Lilo & Stitch)
“We thought we were going to have a children’s choir and it was going to sound angelic…to be pretty; we didn’t expect it to be powerful” (Dean Dubois, writer and director, Lilo and Stitch).The approach to the music in this film is similar to that of ‘Why Should I Worry’ and ‘Down in New Orleans’; it completely encapsulates the feel of Hawaii without being a stereotype or cliche, which would have been so easy. I didn’t put it in the top ten though, since Lilo and Stitch isn’t really a musical; the music in these films are atmospheric, rather than being active parts of the story. Still, this is one of my favorite Disney soundtracks and for good reason. Powerful, indeed.
- I’m Still Here (Treasure Planet)
Again, Treasure Planet is not in that “animated musical” genre; in fact, this is the only song in the film; the rest of the soundtrack is score and songs that only ran during the credits. The movie is incredibly underrated and given that there’s not much to the soundtrack, I can understand why this song gets so often overlooked. But I think it’s an accomplishment and deserves more credit.