For so many of us, before we become self-styled experts in whatever kinds of pop music we like best, there are Disney songs. They’re inescapable, nearly; who among you, readers, cannot name or hum or sing or belt out at least one, if not half a dozen? With the current Disney cartoon Moana scoring rave reviews and mega box office as it completes the company’s re-embrace of its musical heritage, we thought it would be fun to establish a Disney Song Canon – the competition Moana‘s strong set of tunes faces as they hope to achieve immortality in the Disney songbook, which I believe is located somewhere inside the Disney Vault, possibly on the shelf above all of the Black Cauldron merch.
Of course, Disney music is not limited to animated features, and so neither was this list: live action releases from Disney (though generally not Touchstone or Hollywood Pictures) were fair game, along with theme park songs and any applicable Disney Afternoon theme songs. Songs from subsidiaries such as Pixar, Marvel Studios, Muppet Studios, and Lucasfilm were not eligible, because those entities’ existences predated Disney, as much as Pixar movies are now identified with the Disney brand.
Your usual SportsAlcohol buddies Marisa, Jesse, Nathaniel, Sara, and Maggie were joined by self-taught Disney experts Jonathan Lill, Rayme Shore, Bayard Templeton, and Jennifer Vega, compiling lists of our favorites and synthesizing them into a single Top 20. We’ll be back later this week with a podcast where we talk a little more about our choices and their movies. But for now, enjoy this ultra-definitive, well-considered list. These are the Disney songs that feel like magic to us.
The Top 20 Disney Songs (So Far)
20. “When Will My Life Begin”
It’s easy to forget now that she’s on a hit TV show, or possibly because you didn’t bother to know this in the first place, but for a while there, Mandy Moore couldn’t catch a break. Her 2003 reinvention as a sorta-adult artist, the (good!) covers record Coverage, wasn’t a big commercial success, nor were the folkier, more introspective (and good!) records that followed, and in between albums she gave a lot of good performances in a lot of unsuccessful movies. So it’s possible that I derive additional satisfaction out of “When Will My Life Begin” because of how it, as Rapunzel’s introductory song, it confers upon Ms. Moore the coveted title of Disney Princess. But it’s also a snappy variation on the standard “I want” song. Its pacing and acoustic-guitar-heavy instrumentation hustle the song out of balladry, but the real innovation comes from lyricist Glenn Slater, who frames it as a breathless list of Rapunzel’s time-killing activities within her tower. It’s almost a pre-“I want” song, because Rapunzel spends most of it describing (and, onscreen, demonstrating) everything she’s already done within her life’s confines. Tangled is a little cautious as a musical – it’s built on, essentially, four songs and a lot of reprises – but this fresh approach to familiar material, along with a lovely vocal performance by Moore, showed that Disney was more than ready to jump back into singing-princess territory. – Jesse
19. “Friend Like Me”
I saw Aladdin in the theaters when I was eleven and it left me mesmerized. I have a distinct memory of returning to school the next week and having a classmate laugh at me when I said that I had loved the movie, since in his eyes, cartoons were for little kids. But I felt no shame when he said that; Aladdin felt different from Cinderella or Snow White, movies that I may not have defended to my sixth-grade classmate. With the late Robin Williams voicing the Genie, bringing a variety of accents and pop culture references to the movie, Aladdin felt smarter and more sophisticated than any of the other animated movies I had seen, and the Genie-centric “Friend Like Me” has always been my favorite song from it. The Genie moves at a mile a minute, morphing from a boxing trainer to a French waiter to a set of barbers, throwing in a “surfer dude” accent when he says that he is “in the mood to help you, dude.” The number concludes with a flashing “Applause” sign above the Genie’s head, something sixth-grade Bayard found especially brilliant, probably in part because I could see my classmate, who believed he was too old for Disney cartoons, not getting the joke at all. – Bayard
18. “King of New York”
After trying and failing to successfully introduce Newsies to fellow musical theater geeks in college, I developed a hypothesis that there is a specific age range when one needs to have first seen Newsies in order to appreciate it in adulthood. For me, I was 13 and it was showing as a Sunday afternoon time filler on WPIX, a local New York TV station. Other fans I know first saw it in their pre-teen or early teenage years as well. In the twenty years years since its initial release, it went from theatrical flop and Razzie winner, to VHS cult hit, to Tony-winning Broadway musical. Even its biggest fans will likely acknowledge many questionable choices in its original version, such as believing that kids wanted to sit through a two-hour live-action musical with a meandering plot, or casting Hollywood legends Ann-Margaret and Robert Duvall in small roles that weren’t going to appeal to their target audience or to the adults buying the tickets, or choreographing Christian Bale’s bizarre solo dance during “Sante Fe.”
However, it is hard to argue against the notion that for three minutes in the middle of the film, the stars align for a wonderful and creative old-fashioned song-and-dance number. There’s Max Cassela (Vinny from Doogie Howser) dancing on tables, Christian Bale rhyming the words “muckety mucks” with “deluxe,” a stunt involving a dancer spinning on a fan, and Bill Pullman, well, singing. With the number set in a diner, the audience is also able to escape the sometimes distracting sound stage feel of most of the other numbers. The song and choreography let the cast really show its youthful exuberance and physical talent as things start to finally look a little better for the orphaned boys, who can briefly dream of what the fame of being in the newspaper could bring them. Without the “11 o’clock” number of so many musicals before it, “King of New York” serves the purpose of giving the audience something happy and hummable to take with them. – Bayard
17. “Why Should I Worry?”
Oliver & Company, 1988
He may not look or act the part, but Billy Joel is every bit as showtune-ready as his frenemy Elton John – maybe more so, because in my experience a lot more of Joel’s story-songs make narrative sense than John’s. “Why Should I Worry?” is not top-tier, Innocent Man/Turnstiles-level Joel, I’ll grant you – but it actually wouldn’t be entirely out of place on Turnstiles, a record with a lot of location-specific tunes. “Why Should I Worry?” introduces the sometimes sunglasses-wearing dog version of the Artful Dodger in Disney’s Oliver Twist riff Oliver and Company, but really, it’s introducing a new version of New York to the kitten hero who has so far experienced it as cold, lonely, rainy, and hostile (including in his current interactions with Dodger, who is in the process of denying him his share of the delicious sausages they stole together). That rainy, unwelcoming cesspool is NOT Billy Joel’s New York, at least not all the time, and it’s entirely charming to see a dog version of the famously, almost stubbornly Long Islandy singer strut around the city with an energy and agility that, frankly, may have eluded Mr. Joel by 1988 or so. Five years later, he’d retire from making new pop music – and stick to it, too! His pop scarcity since ’93 turns into a stealth reason to appreciate the little-loved Oliver and Company: It’s a relic of a time when Billy Joel was making new music all the time. Not many Disney songs can function as a direct bridge from showtune-style music to legitimately good pop music (sorry, Peabo Bryson; you have a nice voice but you don’t do the trick), but a kid who likes “Why Should I Worry?” could very well grow up to like Billy Joel. This one definitely did. – Jesse
16. “Be Prepared”
The Lion King, 1994
What makes a Disney villain song rise above the other bad-guy ditties? For me, it’s the amount of self-awareness of the villain. “Gaston” is great, but clearly he sees himself as the hero, so his self-ode is rousing and boisterous. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” has an amazing performance behind it, but Ursula still has to toe the line between relishing her evil witch powers and being an attractive alliance for Ariel, so there’s a tiny bit of restraint there. “Hellfire” is morally tortured. I want my villains to be truly evil and know it, and, for that, I turn to Scar from The Lion King and his anthem for regicide.
Scar does not mince words. He spends most of the first verse of the song calling everybody that’s listening to it stupid. Then, on account of their stupidity, he has to very clearly explain that he plans to kill the king and assume the throne. There is no gray area here—this dude is bad. (If the audio doesn’t telegraph that hard enough, the Nazi imagery surely gets it across.)
And, since there’s no ambiguity about Scar’s immortal soul, the song itself is allowed to be a little darker, a little heavier, and a little more rock and roll than your typical Disney number. There’s a rhyme scheme (“king undisputed, respected, saluted”) that keeps it marching along like those goose-stepping hyenas. But, best of all, is the icy vocal, which so matter-of-factly (and almost sultrily) announces future atrocities. It’s truly chilling. This easily could have gone over-the-top, but keeping the yelling to “YOU WON’T GET A SNIFF WITHOUT ME” really make “Be Prepared” the scariest of the Disney villain songs. – Marisa
15. “Grim Grinning Ghosts”
The Haunted Mansion Ride, 1969
When promoting Drag Me to Hell, his 2009 return to horror after many years working in other genres, director Sam Raimi coined the term “spook-a-blast” to describe the combination of chills, thrills, and laughs that he was going for. I love this phrase, and I’m always on the lookout for a good spook-a-blast.But to my mind, the greatest spook-a-blast of all time is the Haunted Mansion ride in Disneyland, and the thing that unifies the disparate tones and elements that make up the ride (from genuine creeps to charmingly comic spooks) is the macabre anthem “Grim Grinning Ghosts.” It’s easy to imagine the ride feeling cobbled together without cohesion, incorporating a variety of ideas from its long development that run the gamut from sincere scares (the spectral bride in the attic) to more overtly comic ghouls (the row of singing busts in the graveyard). But whether with an eerie organ version of Buddy Baker’s tune or a ghostly chorus singing X Atencio’s rollicking lyrics, “Grim Grinning Ghosts” perfectly walks the line between scary and silly, and it’s all a blast. When the ghosts invite you to “join our jamboree,” it’s a fairly irresistible invitation. We’ll all die someday, but it rarely sounds so fun. – Nathaniel
14. “Barking at the Moon”
The 2007 Disney cartoon Bolt only did middling box office, is beloved by almost no one, and has just two original songs on the soundtrack. So how did 50 percent of the movie’s new tunes make it onto the list of the best Disney songs of all time, given the pantheon of entries from the Golden Age of Disney available to all voters in this poll? It’s because Jesse and I—two big fans of Jenny Lewis, singer/songwriter behind “Barking at the Moon”—screwed the curve and rated it high on our lists. So there.
Before you cry foul at the two-person ballot stuffing, give “Barking at the Moon” a listen. It is a fantastic song. Not just good for a Disney song, but a great song, full-stop. I would mix “Barking at the Moon” on my iPod, with the rest of my other music and not feel the urge to skip it sheepishly if it came up on shuffle during a party.
You might argue that a Disney song loses something when it can be seamlessly integrated into a playlist with current music—that Disney songs have Broadway-style emotional work to do, and, in making a more contemporary-sounding number, you miss out on some of that heft. But “Barking at the Moon” does accomplish some emotional heavy lifting. Lewis’s voice, high and gentle in the chorus, gets across a sense of vulnerability. The kinda-folky vibe of the rest of the song, nostalgic in its own way, enhances the feeling of homesickness. It’s not as melodramatic as other Disney “I Want” songs, but the longing is there.
I also like singing along with the “Whoo! Whoo!” parts. – Marisa
13. “Baby Mine”
Dumbo is Disney’s shortest animated feature film, running just over an hour, yet it’s packed with great tunes. Many though aren’t quite fully developed songs, being either too brief or too enmeshed in the symphonic score to (see for instance “Casey Junior” or “When I See an Elephant Fly”). “Baby Mine” is another example that’s easy to overlook. The lyrics are simple, even sappy, as you might expect in a lullaby, yet the song is heartbreaking in its original context, where a ridiculed and outcast baby is comforted by his imprisoned mother. It’s sung by Betty Noyes (also known for dubbing Debbie Reynolds’ songs in Singin’ in the Rain) in a melodramatic orchestral style similar other early Disney songs like “Someday my Prince Will Come” and “When You Wish Upon a Star” that can sound hopelessly old-fashioned today. So you might prefer one of the many cover versions, such as by Allison Krauss, Bette Midler (who recorded it for Beaches) or even Kenny Loggins. Or check out the version by Bonnie Raitt, backed by Was (Not Was) on the 1988 album Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. The album features a crazy eclectic group of artists, from Tom Waits growling out a frightening “Heigh Ho”, to Ringo Starr crooning “When you Wish Upon a Star” backed by Herb Alpert, to the Replacements singing “Cruella de Vil”. And Raitt’s “Baby Mine’ is appropriately bluesy and slow and sad. – Jonathan
12. “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)”
The Jungle Book, 1967
Is it just coincidence that the jazz mode is so often used in Disney movies to embody the voice of the outsider, of someone on the other side of the fence? Whether this represents a racial division, as with the crows singing “When I See an Elephant Fly” in Dumbo, or a class barrier, as with Peggy Lee’s “He’s a Tramp” and Scatman Crothers’ et al. “Everybody Wants to be a Cat” (from Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats, respectively) the songs also all implicitly or explicitly compare one side to the other, highlighting the protagonists’ dilemma at the heart of each movie (whether Dumbo can embrace his otherness, or whether the dogs and cats and their owners can overcome their class snobbery.) In The Jungle Book that paradigm is reversed. Mowgli’s dilemma isn’t to join or embrace the jungle and its habitats, but to reject them all, as Mowgli being there in the first place is a perturbation of the natural order. King Louie’s song doesn’t elevate his own position as cool, sexy, or otherwise desirable but emphasizes the enviable power and status Mowgli will have at his fingertips, if only he returns to human society. This makes it a pretty odd Disney song but then Louis Prima’s performance makes you forget all that and you want to dance along with Baloo whil uttering ridiculous scat syllables. Check out Christopher Walken’s version or Los Lobos’ (they’ve recorded the song twice!), but none of them can match Prima’s great clownish style. – Jonathan
11. “A Whole New World”
I was an avid Disney watcher when I was younger: new, old, taped off late-night Disney Channel, it didn’t matter. I even had a Disney-themed birthday party one year, and competed in a Disney-only trivia contest with my fifth grade teacher (and won). I’m not sure I could isolate an exact moment when I lost interest but it was likely at some point while watching Tarzan. I almost never see Disney movies that aren’t Pixar now and never feel any desire to re-watch the old ones. I may, perhaps, have gotten a bit too cynical for fairy tales that tend to end with marriages. But watching the (unembeddable) video of Brad Kane and Lea Salonga recording “A Whole New World” brought unexpected tears to my eyes. The sessions were held before animators began work on the sequence so they could incorporate the two singers’ facial expressions, a method that pays off in a big way in the film. The earnest hopefulness of Kane and Salonga, who were both teens at the time, brought me instantly back to seeing the film in theatres as a six-year-old, back when Aladdin’s behavior didn’t scan as kinda stalkerish, and being in love seemed like it would be something entirely new and life-changing. I’m not that six-year-old anymore, of course, and as the song itself says, “I can’t go back to where I used to be.” But it’s good every now and then to be reminded of her starry eyes taking in the unbelievable sights. Perhaps it’s time to watch the whole movie again. – Sara
10. “Poor Unfortunate Souls”
The Little Mermaid, 1989
Is there a better villain song? I don’t think there is. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, minus the psychopathy, Ursula is actually awesome. Interests include hanging around her chill pad, choreographing dance routines with her pets, the dark arts, trying on lipsticks, noshing on munchies, botany, and being comfortable with her sexuality. She loves being herself, and the beauty of the song is how it showcases that. The scene sets her up perfectly as a villain we can have fun with, but also frees us from having to feel sorry for her when she meets her inevitable (and gory, for a Disney movie) demise. Ursula doesn’t have any dark backstory that we’re aware of. She has no self-loathing. She just loves being bad, and resents having been ousted from her rightful place ruling over all souls poor and unfortunate enough to not be her. – Jennifer
9. “I Won’t (Say I’m in Love)”
Megara has been burned. She has been scorched so badly that she is beholden to Hades, whose hair is an actual flame. I feel you, girl. We all do. Her showcase song, “I Won’t Say (I’m In Love),” is the antidote to the standard sappy Disney love song. This is not to say that I don’t have appreciation for the traditional Disney love songs; they’re great. But this is an anthem for the modern gal, just looking for a decent guy or maybe even an actual hero. Megara has been there, done that, and has the souvenir Grecian urn to prove it. She’s also one of the most overlooked Disney characters, maybe because she’s just too real, and I think it’s time we brought her into the limelight. Clearly, she can handle it. Accompanied by The Muses, she reminds us in this song that love can hurt. We all make poor life choices and poor love choices. But, that doesn’t mean that love is forever out of reach! “I Won’t Say (I’m In Love)” reminds us it may be hard to let love back in after the pain of a failed relationship, but sometimes letting your guard down pays off. You might get to ride a mythical winged horse! (Or maybe just have a beau to binge watch a Netflix series with.) Either way, it’s worth the risk of letting your guard down to find your Wonderboy. – Rayme
Beauty and the Beast, 1991
One of the best comedic show tunes from any show ever, animated, filmed, or live. If it had given us nothing but the line “I’m especially good at expectorating!” it would still be classic, but it there’s so much more: the cleverness of the rhyme scheme and the beautiful irony of the lyrics that skewer their object despite the singers’ intentions; the way it nails the bar-room spirit in that it is actually wonderfully fun to sing loudly in a group; the way the reprise is perfection itself. If Bill Brasky had a song, this would be it. You know that son of a bitch uses antlers in all of his decorating. – Jennifer
Beauty and the Beast, 1991
I would argue that Beauty and the Beast has the strongest song score of any Disney cartoon. There’s the Oscar-winning title song (which may turn up further up this very list), the iconic and Simpsons-parodied “Be Our Guest,” and the below-mentioned delight of “Gaston.” Yet the song that impresses me most is not one of its most-recognized, though it did receive an Oscar nomination alongside “Guest” and the eventual winner. Following the famous stained-glass prologue, “Belle” is the first full-on musical number in the movie, and the way it introduces Belle, her place in the small town where she lives, and a whole mess of townspeople (including the strapping Gaston) is one of the most Broadway moves in the entire Disney filmography. Like a lot of the songs on this list, it’s an “I want” number – and like a lot of the best “I want” numbers, it’s actually more than that; as Belle sings about her passion (books) and frustration (with this “provincial life”), she’s surrounded by the overlapping sounds of that poor provincial town, describing her as she sighs about them. It’s a production number that provides speedy and voluminous context to Belle as a character. There’s musical and visual ambition to this number that can be dizzying, but it’s never hard to follow. The whole thing reaches a spectacular (and Gaston-inclusive) crescendo, with “bonjour!” serving as a constant punctuation throughout. This isn’t a radio-ready love song. This is Howard Ashman and Alan Menken taking their best run at Broadway, and coming out with a triumph that sets the tone for one of Disney’s best films. – Jesse
6. “What’s This”
The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993
When Tim Burton, fired from Disney in 1984 after his short Frankenweenie proved to be darker and weirder than executives at the time were comfortable with, made his first return to Disney as a hugely successful director with his pick of projects, he chose to revive a pitch from his days as an animator. The Nightmare Before Christmas was his take on the sort of holiday special he’d loved as a kid (think Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or How the Grinch Stole Christmas). With those tuneful holiday classics in mind, naturally the film would be another in his (now decades-long) collaboration with Danny Elfman. Burton and Elfman’s artistic relationship makes a lot of sense when you look at their shared influences and affinities (monster movies, Bernard Herrmann, Disney animation), and more than anything they share an outsider perspective that makes Elfman the perfect musical match for Burton’s misfit protagonists.
This shared sensibility may find its purest expression in Nightmare‘s Jack Skellington. With a singing voice provided by Elfman himself, Jack is a perfect blend of Burton’s sensitive weirdo artist and Elfman’s alienated impresario. Jack has ample opportunity throughout the film to express the melancholy that inhabits so many Burton heroes (there’s a song literally titled “Jack’s Lament”), but he’s also a dynamic and enthusiastic presence. And “What’s This,” the song Jack sings as he stumbles into the completely-foreign-to-him Christmastown is Jack at his buoyant best. There’s something poignant in having Elfman sing with such delight about each bit of Christmas iconography that Jack discovers, as he has said, “Halloween was always my favorite night of the year, and Christmas was the saddest. I was raised Jewish in a secular family. We didn’t celebrate anything, so in my mind all my friends were singing Christmas carols in a warm, happy environment, while I was stuck in this depression.” Certainly part of the fun of the song comes from the delightfully mordant references to Jack’s own morbid frame of reference (“Instead of screams, I swear I can hear music in the air,” indeed), and the tune itself is catchy and thrillingly paced. But perhaps it’s this hint of autobiographical wish fulfillment on Elfman’s part that makes “What’s This” such a joyful highlight of the film. – Nathaniel
5. “Let It Go”
Frozen has become a cultural juggernaut, spawning a million costumes and book spinoffs and merchandise and rowdy renditions of “Let It Go” in karaoke bars. But if you look at the film itself, it’s a bit of a weird one. I’d love to know the exact revisions the story went through—they were reportedly numerous and major, thanks to extensive notes from John Lasseter—because the result feels… worked around. Like they had a few songs and a bunch of character designs that they squeezed into a new shape. The first song about the ice workers feels almost a different universe than the rest, setting up themes that don’t necessarily come back around. The last third of the movie has no songs. Plotwise it bears almost no resemblance to the source material. But it somehow works, thanks in large part to the music of Bobby Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez.
Most of the songs are bubbly and clever (“In Summer,” “Love Is an Open Door,” “Fixer Upper”), but “Let It Go” is a straight-up anthem unlike any other in the Disney canon. It’s sort of a villain song—Elsa is abandoning her life, which she leaves in endless winter—and it’s sort of a want song, or an anti-want song, as Elsa rejects everything she knows. And it’s sort of sexy! That part may be weirdest of all. Though it’s freeing and she looks amazing as she does it, it’s ultimately not a triumphant rallying cry, at least within the context of the film. Elsa can’t retire to her fortress of solitude in peace forever; she has to engage with the world. But it’s so damn satisfying to belt and strut and tell the world you’re done hiding.
While we’re talking Frozen, I’d like to take this opportunity to state that there is literally no better line in a Disney movie than “If only there was someone out there who loved you.” Sometimes when I’m going about my day I say it quietly to myself and shiver. – Maggie
4. “When You Wish Upon a Star”
I must admit I was a little disappointed to see so few songs from the classic Disney years make the final list. That this ended up being the highest-ranked old classic feels right, though. In many ways it’s the official song of Disney, a quick flourish of it playing over the logo in its movies and television shows; even the cruise line uses the first seven notes of the melody as its horn signal. It was also the first to win a Best Song Oscar, and ranked seventh on AFI’s 100 Greatest Songs in Film History list. Arguably it’s better known than the movie it featured in, at least among young Disney fans these days. But what makes it so enduring? Many of the greatest Disney songs serve as seamless storytelling devices and “Star” certainly works on those merits, since the entire story is predicated on Gepetto’s wish for a real boy rather than a puppet. But it’s something more than just that. Perhaps it’s the timeless quality of the instrumentation and backing chorus; in some ways it brings to mind a Christmas song. Perhaps it’s the wobbly but charming voice of Cliff Edwards. Perhaps it’s the surprise when seeing the film for the first time that the song is coming from a tiny, suit-wearing cricket. What makes it endure for me is a mix of all these things: the old-timey storybook opening credits it plays over, the heedless assurance of the lyrics (“No request is too extreme”? Really?), the way Edwards reaches for that impossible, bell clear note at the end, how it can mean something different depending on what time you’re at in your life. Wishing on a star might seem foolish as we get older, but the comfort of such hopefulness always remains with us. No song in the Disney catalog captures that better. – Sara
3. “Beauty and the Beast”
Beauty and the Beast, 1991
To me, this is the most perfect union between a song and scene that Disney has ever put together; an instance where simple lyrics, a patient rhythm, and some new technology combine to reach unsurpassed heights of majestic romance. It starts simply with an unusually hushed tone. The characters, now in formal dress, greet each other at the grand staircase, one confident, the other nervous. The lyrics begin as they bow and curtsy and he takes her arm: “Barely even friends, then somebody bends, unexpectedly.” The camera follows behind as they break away from dinner (still on the soup course!) to enter the ballroom: “both a little scared, neither one prepared.” The ballroom is only perhaps the second time Disney used a fully 3D digital setting for animated characters (The Rescuers Down Under dabbled the previous year) but the viewer isn’t allowed to enjoy it yet. First, the two dancers figure out where to place their hands, and as they take their first tentative steps we start spinning with them, something never seen like this before in an animated film. As he gains confidence, he takes the lead and pulls her towards us. The music swells “ever just the same, ever a surprise, ever as before” and the camera pulls upward in exhilaration, rushing us towards the ceiling where frescoed cherubs look down on the couple. As the song’s second verse begins we float back towards the dancers, past the elaborate chandelier, listening to the most melancholy of the lyrics: “Bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong.” We continue to sink down to the floor and pull in until the dancers twirl towards us and then we’re looking up at them as they dance by towards the towering windows and away from us. There’s a bit of character business as the song winds to a close, when we leave the pair to their intimacies off in the distant shadows of the ballroom. “Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme…” the song ends with the same hush as at the start, only now with the expectation spent, and the moment passed—the best first date ever.
2. “Part of Your World”
The Little Mermaid, 1989
We first hear the theme near the beginning of the movie, when we’re introduced to the undersea world Ariel inhabits. Having just learned, along with Prince Eric, that the friendly weather topside that day is thanks to King Triton, we’re plunged into the ocean, where the music starts playing and we see our first merpeople. That’s right,, the film seems to say. They’re real. Believe. Something wonderful is about to happen.
By the time Ariel actually sings “Part of Your World,” fifteen minutes into the movie, we’ve been primed to hear the theme and expect magic, so the song strikes with full emotional force. Go ahead and deconstruct the film’s plot for bad feminism all you want, but when Ariel sings “Part of Your World,” she hasn’t met Eric yet, and what she’s really expressing is a wish for independence and opportunity, to “know what the people know.” As a plot device, it’s enormously effective: we want what Ariel wants. As a song, it’s one of the most moving and beautiful pieces of music Disney ever created. I still get teary just hearing Jodi Benson’s warm, wistful voice come up on iTunes shuffle. Re-watching the actual scene, I’m struck by how much “acting” Ariel gets to do, and how even using that word to describe her shows how effective animation can be when it makes you forget you’re not watching real people. – Jennifer
1. “Kiss the Girl”
The Little Mermaind, 1989
Every song in The Little Mermaid is perfect. How can you pick just one? Howard Ashman and Alan Menken wrote the best villain song (Poor Unfortunate Souls), the best want song (“Part of Your World”), and the best It’s Awesome Here song (sorry “Be Our Guest,” it’s “Under the Sea”). And they created “Kiss the Girl,” a big, joyous, toe-tapping celebration of taking a chance and seizing the moment.
One of the great achievements of “Kiss the Girl” is how fun it makes kissing sound — giddy and spontaneous and innocent. Of course you should just kiss whoever you want! (Providing they are making eyes at you and seem very into the idea of kissing.) As an anxious kid (… and adult), I found this very appealing and reassuring. Stop worrying! Just give it a shot! What’s the worst that can happen, some evil eels will dump you into a lagoon? No big deal! And it’s a pure and adorable expression of every audience member who’s ever been invested in “shipping” a pair of characters: just kisssssssss already!!!!1!1!!
What makes the best Disney songs really stand out is how they work together musically and visually, and Kiss the Girl is the perfect example of this harmony. As Sebastian builds the mood, recruiting the other sea creatures to his cause, the song builds, and layers in voices and instruments. By the end, there’s a huge chorus of “whoa-whoas” and “la la las” and spinning boats and fireflies and water features and dancing frogs. It’s a treat for the eyes and ears — the best Disney has to offer. It marked the beginning of the modern age of Disney and it’s the high bar that new Disney films still aspire to clear. – Maggie