Disney has produced dozens of soundtrack), but we can give an opinion on which songs are best from each film.
This list dives into the main Disney animated musicals from the past almost-century. To narrow down candidates, I took inspiration from this “calculation” of best full soundtracks by Daniel F, which said it has to be a fully animated movie that was released in theatres and has to include at least three original songs that represent what the characters are feeling or going through. I did make one exception in that I included a couple of films that were released but not solely made by Disney, like Coco and A Goofy Movie. Because you know I’ve got to talk about those ones.
As always, this is a subjective list that is presented with 100 per cent objectivity and authority. And if you disagree with any of my choices…I mean I hate to ask, but are you sure you’ve heard music before?
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: “Heigh-Ho”
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may have been Disney’s first journey into animated musicals about princesses who fall in love, but the highlight from Walt Disney’s theatrical debut is the dwarves’ debut, “Heigh-Ho.” It’s two amazing tracks packed into one, for double the sound fun.
Pinocchio: “When You Wish Upon a Star”
It’s one of the most famous Disney songs of all time, and for good reason. We’ve all wished on stars for our dreams to come true. Whether or not they did, well, that’s another story.
Dumbo: “Baby Mine”
I dare you to listen to this song and not bawl your eyes out. Do it. I dare you.
(Note: I recognise there’s another very good song in Dumbo. But it’s part of a very very not good scene, so I chose not to include it.)
Bambi: “Little April Shower”
Bambi has a fantastic score, but the songs don’t hold up. “Little April Shower” is the best of the bunch, mainly because of how well it’s integrated with the score. Which, again, is fantastic.
Cinderella: “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes”
Cinderella’s debut song is a calming melody about the power of dreams — mostly because she didn’t really do much in her life other than wish for better stuff. It might be emblematic of her passiveness as a protagonist, but it’s still gorgeous. That said, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” was a close second.
Peter Pan: “You Can Fly”
There isn’t a soul on the planet who heard this song and didn’t immediately believe they could fly. Pretty sure most of us got bruises from trying.
Lady and the Tramp: “He’s a Tramp”
Peg knows what’s what.
The Sword in the Stone: “Higgitus Figgitus”
“Higgitus Figgitus” is a goofy song in the vein of “Bibbidy-Bobbidy-Boo,” where Merlin casts some spells on his stuff while packing for a trip. It’s cute and the lyrics, while nonsensical, are surprisingly catchy.
Alice in Wonderland: “The Unbirthday Song”
Just FYI, it’s my unbirthday toda — oh it’s yours too? Well then: “A very merry unbirthday to you!”
The Jungle Book: “The Bare Necessities”
The quintessential ode to loving the simple things in life, aka not giving a shit about everything else in the world.
The Aristocats: “Scales and Arpeggios”
This was a handy guide during childhood voice lessons, and it holds up.
(Note: I recognise there’s another very good song in The Aristocats. But it has some seriously racist shit, so again I’m not including it. Seriously, WTF, Disney?)
Robin Hood: “Oo-De-Lally”
This bardic refrain from Alan-A-Dale (Roger Miller) not only sets the scene for the movie, it’s also, like, super chill. Robin Hood and Little John might be fleeing for their lives from the Sheriff of Nottingham, but there’s no reason to get all freaked out about it.
The Rescuers: “Someone’s Waiting For You”
File this under: Adult woman sings as a little girl looks sad. Happens more often than you might think.
The Fox and the Hound: “Best of Friends”
File this under: Oh god my heart.
The Great Mouse Detective: “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind”
Ratigan is the truly extra villain that guy from Pocahontas could only dream of being. This tribute to his criminal mastermind is fun and lively, with a few truly fucked-up lines thrown in for good measure. Like, apparently he drowns widows and orphans? What the hell?
Oliver & Company: “Why Should I Worry”
Long before Phil Collins cornered the “Superstar Does Disney” market, Billy Joel gave it a whirl with Oliver & Company. Joel may not have written the track about how cool it is to have street smarts, but it was definitely written for him. The singer and song go together like cats and dogs — which is a good thing in this case because Oliver is a cat.
The Little Mermaid: “Part of Your World”
The Little Mermaid is one of those movies where every song is a perfect piece of an even more perfect puzzle. It’s hard to choose. But in the end, Jodi Benson’s refrain about wanting something more is the perfect piece we’re choosing.
Beauty and the Beast: “Belle”
It’s really hard to land a large company number in animation. It’s something that works best on Broadway, where all the different characters can intersect and overlap on stage in a beautiful chaotic mess. “Belle” may be the finest company number in animated musical history. It’s big and loud, but also knows when to focus on its star. In just a few minutes, the song manages to tell us everything we need to know about Belle and her world.
Aladdin: “Friend Like Me”
Robin Williams. That is all.
A Nightmare Before Christmas: “Sally’s Song”
Catherine O’Hara lends her pipes to Sally’s haunting song about wanting to be with the skeleton she loves. It may not be the biggest musical number in A Nightmare Before Christmas, but it’s one that knows how to dig its fingers in your brain and linger.
The Lion King: “Circle of Life”
This song is so good it gets its own montage.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame: “Hellfire”
“Hellfire” is one of those songs you can’t believe exists in the Disney pantheon. It’s about Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay), a moral leader who becomes obsessed with Esmerelda, a woman who represents everything he stands against. The song exemplifies his inner torment as he’s trapped between his lust and his faith (with a little bit of slut-shaming in there!). It might be the most complex musical number Disney’s ever put on film.
A Goofy Movie: “Eye 2 Eye”
Every song in A Goofy Movie is worthy of its own list. “Eye 2 Eye” is the standout here because it represents the final resolution between Goofy and Max. For the first time ever, they’re seeing it eye to eye!
Pocahontas: “Colours of the Wind”
So, um, Pocahontas is not my favourite musical to discuss. It looks beautiful, but it’s got some major problems that have only gotten worse over time. That said, “Colours of the Wind” is a pretty song and it’s sung spectacularly by Judy Kuhn.
Toy Story: “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”
I don’t think of Toy Story as a musical, at all, but it technically fills the criteria. It’s got three original songs from Randy Newman that are used to represent what the characters are feeling, even if they’re not the ones singing them. As we see later on, that becomes a huge trend with Disney in the early 2000s. Anyway, I’m personally a fan of “Strange Things” but I can’t deny that “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” is a cultural staple.
(Side note: Toy Story 2 doesn’t have enough new songs to be included, but I wanted to give a special shout-out to “When She Loved Me” because it’s very pretty)
Hercules: “Zero to Hero”
Meg (Susan Egan) subverts the traditional Disney princess love song by sharing how much she doesn’t actually want to be in love. But of course, the Muses (and the audience) know that’s not true.
Mulan: “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”
Tarzan: “You’ll Be in My Heart”
Ah Phil Collins, welcome to the Disney family. “You’ll Be in My Heart” might be cheesy as hell, but it’s damn catchy. Tarzan marks our entrance into the post-Hercules Disney era I like to call: “Musicals, What Musicals?” Many of the animated films for the next decade place the original songs in the background (often sung by famous artists) speaking as the characters’ subconscious. It was a technique popularised by DreamWorks, Shrek in particular. Technically they’re still musicals, although barely.
Return to Neverland: “I’ll Try”
Yeah, so… this movie. It exists.
Brother Bear: “Look Through My Eyes”
Ah, the glorious return of Phil Collins, doing the same thing he did with Tarzan but not as well. “Look Through My Eyes” is all right.
Home on the Range: “(You Ain’t) Home on the Range”
Home on the Range is one of those movies that has all but disappeared from our memory, mostly because it kinda sucks. But some of the songs aren’t half-bad? I’m particular to the opening number, “(You Ain’t) Home on the Range,” which has some Oklahoma! and old-school Disney vibes.
Chicken Little: “All I Know”
It’s Five for Fighting singing about how some chickens are sad.
Meet the Robinsons: “Little Wonders”
I was shocked to learn that Rob Thomas’ “Little Wonders” actually came from Meet the Robinsons. It’s an OK song and it makes a lot more sense now that I know it was for this movie!
The Princess and the Frog: “Almost There”
Anika Noni Rose’s Tiana gave us one of the best “I Want” songs in the history of Disney. Hands down.
Tangled: “I See the Light”
Remember how I mentioned the “Musicals, What Musicals” era earlier? Tangled was the first musical that successfully blended DreamWorks edginess with traditional Disney. The song starts with Mandy Moore and Zachary Levy singing as Rapunzel and Flynn silently watch the lanterns — just like all the celebrities who sang for Chicken Little and Tarzan — but at the end of it, the characters themselves come together and sing! The Princess and the Frog may have been a final tribute to the Disney Renaissance (and it was great), but Tangled showed what was around the corner.
Winnie the Pooh: “Everything Is Honey”
Did you know that Frozen’s songwriters made a Winnie the Pooh musical with Zooey Deschanel? Did you also know it’s not good? This song is OK at least.
Frozen: “Let It Go”
Moana: “How Far I’ll Go”
Moana has so many fantastic songs, I find myself putting on the soundtrack whenever I want a quick boost. In “How Far I’ll Go,” newcomer Auli’i Cravalho instantly wowed us with her song about, well, wanting something more. It’s a common theme in Disney, but dammit, it’s because it works.
Coco: “Remember Me”
“Remember Me” works on so many levels, it’s almost inconceivable. In the beginning, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) has turned it into a happy love song that’s also about his desire for a legacy. Héctor (Gael García Bernal) shows its origins as a lullaby for his daughter. And finally, Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) tearfully sings it to Mama Coco, pleading with her to remember her father. The song is about the power of memory and our fear of being forgotten, and it works in all of its forms.
Frozen 2: “Show Yourself”
“Into the Unknown” may have been the “Let It Go” surrogate for Frozen 2, but “Show Yourself” emerged as the superior track. Idina Menzel and Evan Rachel Wood sang a haunting duet about love, acceptance, and their eternal connection. Plus, Elsa got a new outfit during it!
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