With the remake of The Lion King hitting cinemas this weekend I had a number of ideas for what I could do to look back on Disney’s history. In the end, because The Lion King has such exceptional music I decided to reflect back on the best of Disney’s song history. This list is going to be focused on Disney’s animated classics (with some consideration to the live action remakes), so there won’t be anything from The Nightmare Before Christmas here. As always this list is my opinion, and I would love to hear yours in the comments.
30) Be Prepared – We’re going to kick off this list with a song from The Lion King, a film that will be dominating this list. But the first of the songs we’ve got is Be Prepared, Scar’s villain song. It’s got such an ominous feeling that is brilliantly brought out by Jeremy Irons’ incredible, menacing drawl. I don’t love the comedic elements brought in by the hyenas, in this song, but Be Prepared is what truly makes Scar a great villain in my eyes.
29) Reflection – Something that has been fairly common in Disney films is the ‘I want’ song. This is where we learn about what our protagonist’s desires and dreams are that will drive their story throughout the film. In Mulan we get this in Reflection. It is Mulan expressing her conflict of having to hide her true nature, which is revealed to be that of a badass warrior, from her family because of the cultural conventions of the time. As an ‘I want’ song there have been ones on a similar theme in more recent years that I think are better, but Reflection certainly warrants a place on this list.
28) How Far I’ll Go – The Oscar nominated number from Moana, although as you’ll see later on not my favourite, How Far I’ll Go is, like Reflection, an ‘I want’ song. In the case of How Far I’ll Go it sets up the internal conflict within Moana of her people and their island or the sea, even going so far as to ask what is wrong with her because she cannot shake this obsession with the ocean. As a fairly typical version of one of these ‘I want’ songs this is certainly a good one, but not as great as some near the top of the list.
27) I Just Can’t Wait To Be King – In a change of pace for the ‘I want’ songs we’ve got I Just Can’t Wait To Be King. Simba’s jaunty and jolly number about looking forward to the freedom of being king when he’s older. As opposed to the previous couple of songs on this list this isn’t one where the hero is pouring out their soul, instead it’s one that’ll fill you with joy. The comedic rebukes offered from Rowan Atkinson’s Zazu are in perfect keeping with the tone of the song. It’s great.
26) Prince Ali – Prince Ali is a big chance for the Genie in Aladdin to get a big moment to shine, particularly Robin Williams. It is great to see Williams run through a tonne of voices, impressions, and very typical Robin Williams-ism, the kind that he is known for doing throughout his career, particularly when given free range. It seems like Williams had as much input into this song as he did the script as a whole, and it is just classic Robin Williams at his best.
25) Oo-De-Lally – Oo-De-Lally may only be a brief song, but boy is it catchy. As soon as you watch Disney’s take on Robin Hood you’ll be singing about Robin and Little John running through the forest, or humming the infectious short tune to yourself. I love what the film did using Roger Miller’s Alan-a-Dale to add most of the musical numbers, and although the opener, Whistle Stop, is also great, it had to be Oo-De-Lally that made this list.
24) Belle – The opening number from Beauty and the Beast Belle sets an early marker for how great the music in the film will be. Paige O’Hara is fantastic as the titular character and the colourful cast of characters playing the villagers is mostly fun, although the woman who wants six eggs maybe could’ve been performed by someone else. It also sets up Belle’s separation from the village, and how she’s considered odd, not to mention the introduction of Gaston.
23) You’re Welcome – The Rock has made a lot of terrible film, but the big standout hit on his resume is Moana. And whilst he is not the most musically talented person in the world he put everything into You’re Welcome. Lin-Manuel Miranda was the man behind it musically, and he delivered in typical Lin-Manuel fashion. The song perfectly encapsulates Maui’s cocky nature and belief that he is a hero to humanity, and sets up what we can expect from his character.
22) One Jump Ahead – The opening number from Aladdin is great introduction to the character and the hard situation that the character finds himself in, and how he is viewed by the rest of Agrabah. Accompanying it is a great chase sequence, particularly in the live action remake. In the 2019 version there is also an important reprise later in the film when Aladdin comes to realise that he is wrong for his actions and lying, making the decision to tell the truth.
21) Zero To Hero – One of the foundations of ancient Greek theatre is the chorus, a group representing the general public of whatever city the play was set in. The way Disney updated that for Hercules with 5 of the muses appearing as a gospel choir is a genius move, and musically made it one of the most original Disney films. Of the Muses songs Zero To Hero is the standout, and not just because I referenced it in my University Dissertation. Whilst a song like The Gospel Truth is also great, Zero To Hero is just the one that stays with you.
20) Can You Feel The Love Tonight – The Oscar Best Picture winner from 1994, although it faced stiff competition from two other song from The Lion King, that as I’m sure you can guess will be appearing further on in this list. Joseph Williams and Sally Dworsky do a great job with the singing on the moving duet parts of the film, but it is the additions from Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella’s Timon and Pumbaa that always made the song for me, with both injecting real emotion as they feel as though they are losing their friend.
19) Beauty and the Beast – The titular song from Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful tune from Angela Lansbury. Sure it may just be describing the plot of the film, and the relationship between Belle and the Beast, but there’s no denying it is one of the classic moments in all of Disney’s canon. The incredible animated sequence of the dance in the ballroom is so iconic, and the song is such a perfect fit.
18) Let It Go – Let It Go, and Frozen, both suffer a bad rap just because of how incredibly popular the song became. Performed by the wickedly talented Adele Dazeem (or Idina Menzel if you’re not John Travolta) Let It Go became so popular simply because it is as great as many of the 90s classics that occupy this area of the list. It’s catchy, packed with meaning, and so fun to belt out, a true modern Disney classic.
17) Whole New World – The epic duet from Aladdin has to be one of the most covered and performed Disney songs of all time, and there’s a reason for that. The song itself is lovely, but it is the sequence as a whole that gives it such a timeless classic quality. Seeing these two exploring the world, with Jasmine given the freedom to do that for the first time, it stunning and it is beautifully realised in both versions.
16) When You Wish Upon A Star – One of the true classic Disney songs, When You Wish Upon A Star comes way back from Disney’s second animated feature film, Pinocchio. This has become a song that is now synonymous with Disney, playing over their opening logo due to how brilliant a way to open movie it was. In the film Cliff Edwards’ performance as Jiminy Cricket is fantastic, and it just sets the tone for a Disney film perfectly.
15) I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song) – I Wan’na Be Like You from The Jungle Book is primarily performed by American jazz and swing musician Louis Prima, with Phil Harris (Baloo) coming in at the end. Bringing in the man known as ‘The King of Swing’ to play the king of swingers is an absolutely genius move. On top of that it is just a great song, it was one of only two songs that Jon Favreau brought back in his Live Action version, although Christopher Walken wasn’t quite on the same level as the original King Louis.
14) Circle of Life – Opening songs in Disney films are important, and we’ve already seen a couple on this list. But the one that absolutely does the best job of creating a powerful atmosphere is Elton John and Tim Rice’s Circle of Life from The Lion King. The African style that Lebo M. brought to the film with the opening Zulu lyrics really help make the opening so memorable. And the rest of the Rice’s lyrics are so great that the 10th Doctor quotes them after regenerating in Doctor Who.
13) Hellfire – Hellfire may well be the least Disney style Disney song ever. Opening with Latin sung in a choral style that really fits the religious aspects of the film’s antagonist Frollo it slowly builds into an operatic climax. This is all matched by some of the most stunning visuals in all of Disney canon. Through the song Frollo realises his sin of lust, however he quickly decides that Esmeralda is to blame, but it is fascinating to see a Disney villain truly wrestling with their actions and choices.
12) Do You Wanna Build A Snowman – So I didn’t see Frozen in cinemas, it was only when my friend told me that I needed to watch it and sent me a clip of Do You Wanna Build A Snowman that I decided to. And that was because just watching this song, as it appeared in the film, I was incredibly moved and wanted to dive more into the story. Kristen Bell’s vocal performance in the final verse of the song is absolutely heartbreaking, and for me this is the best song from Frozen.
11) Gaston – Gaston is probably the most relatable villain of all time. Not in the way that the audience should feel sympathetic towards him, but because we all know a Gaston. A loud oafish bigot who believes they are entitled to everything, and that makes him one of the strongest villains they have. They also gave him a great song. The whole thing is basically just a boast about Gaston being the best and that is truly the most fitting number his character could ever have got.
10) Bare Necessities – We’re into the top 10, the real big guns now. And we’re kicking off with The Bare Necessities from The Jungle Book. The Sherman Brothers are behind most of the music from the film, however The Bare Necessities is the one thing that they kept over from a previous version of the film. It really is that good. Much like Hakuna Matata this is a perfect introduction to a character and their relaxed and laid back philosophy, and who doesn’t love Baloo?
9) Friends on the Other Side – The best Disney villain song actually comes from a slightly underwhelming film, 2009’s The Princess And The Frog. New Orleans is a city that is so incredibly tied to music, that the movie had to try and capture some of that essence and it is particularly done through Friends on the Other Side. And it is a great moment for Doctor Facilier, and utilises Keith David’s voice fantastically. All of this isn’t a great surprise when you consider that it is written by the legendary Randy Newman.
8) I See The Light – Rapunzel and Flynn’s duet as they watch the lanterns being released is just one of the incredible moments from the underrated Tangled. Written by the man behind so many great Disney songs, Alan Menkin, this is probably the best romantic moment from any of Disney’s films. Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi do an exceptional job with it, but what makes it truly special is the stunning pairing of music and visuals.
7) I Am Moana – Moana was a beautiful and powerful film about a young woman really discovering who she is, and I Am Moana is the moment she truly vocalises that to herself, where she realises that as much as she loves her people and wants to be a part of their way of life she can never completely turn away from the sea. This song and moment is the heart of the film for me, and Auliʻi Cravalho’s performance, not just as a singer is exceptional.
6) Hakuna Matata – Hakuna Matata. What a wonderful phrase. Not only does it make a great chorus to belt out, but it is a great introduction to the characters of Timon and Pumbaa and the relaxed philosophy the subscribe to in their lives. Not just in the lyrical content of the song, but also in the music. Everything about Hakuna Matata is cheerful, laid back, and ultimately just a great time. Music is so often used to inform an audience about the nature of a character, but I don’t think Disney has ever managed it better than this.
5) Go The Distance – Hercules seems like the 90s Disney movie that didn’t capture as many people outside of my generation, who are now in their mid 20s, but there is so much great stuff about it, not least the music. The best of those songs for me is Go The Distance, which also happens to be the peak of Disney’s ‘I want’ songs as well. It is an inspirational song, a motivational anthem for a character determined to follow his dreams.
4) Friend Like Me – Whether it is Robin Williams’ original, or Will Smith’s newer take I adore Friend Like Me. Not only is it a great song musically, but it allows for such incredibly rich visuals with the genie getting to flex and show off his powers to Aladdin, and that is represented in great but different ways in both versions. When you put two of the most charismatic performers ever in the role it is hardly surprising that Friend Like Me is a song that oozes charm and makes you fall in love with the genie instantly.
3) Be Our Guest – I truly believe that Beauty and the Beast is the best Disney animated film ever made, and Be Our Guest is one of the standout moments from it. It’s a rapturous and euphoric number where Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury perfectly capture how excited the characters are to have someone new to interact with. With the visual splendour of the feast that accompanies the song there’s a reason this is probably the definitive moment of Disney’s greatest work.
2) I’ll Make A Man Out Of You – Forget Rocky. Forget Team America: World Police. Mulan has the greatest movie montage, and more importantly montage song, of all time. I’ll Make A Man Out Of You is so instantly catchy and singable that for a lot of people this is a go to great Disney song. I will be a little sad not to hear it in the Mulan live action remake (although I think it’s non inclusion is the correct move) but even a little nod to it through a motif would mean so much when it is one of the best Disney songs ever.
1) Part of Your World – And your number one greatest Disney song ever, at least for me, is the incredible Part Of Your World from The Little Mermaid. This is the moment that establishes Ariel’s drive and desires in the film, she desperately wants to be a part of the human world, and informs all the choices she makes in the film. Alan Menkin and lyricist Howard Ashman wrote a great song, and Jodi Benson does an incredible job with the vocals. This is one of the Disney songs that I will never tire of hearing. Truly their greatest.