Disney has played a significant role in pop culture and the film industry for over a hundred years. As the years go by, the spirit and brand of the mouse house has primarily been devoted to expanding within their already-created properties, both live-action and animation. But if there’s one thing that Disney has always stood out for over the years, it’s their songs. Disney songs have grown to become a staple of capturing the magic of what makes their films special. The music provides a nostalgic feeling and elevates the narrative, eliciting a more emotional response to the stories the filmmakers are telling. It’s even appropriate to say that many of Disney’s songs have justified the necessary importance of the Best Original Song Oscar at the Academy Awards, with one of the earliest winners being “When You Wish Upon A Star” from 1940’s “Pinocchio.” And with “The Little Mermaid” live-action remake now playing in theaters, it is only fair to go back and look at some of the greatest Disney songs of all time.
10. “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire” – The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
When you ask most audiences what they believe is the greatest Disney animated movie from the Disney Renaissance, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” isn’t usually one of the first picks. But that doesn’t stop this song from standing out in all the best ways. The song is a two-parter, with the first half being a classic Disney song of the deformed isolated main character, Quasimodo, dreaming about love and a possible connection with the Gypsy love interest, Esmeralda. But the song then takes a dark turn in its second half as it becomes a showcase for the movie’s villain, Judge Claude Frollo. Disney villain songs have emerged as a significant subgenre, with iconic themes such as “Be Prepared” from “The Lion King,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from “The Little Mermaid” and “Gaston” from “Beauty And The Beast.” However, unlike those songs, “Hellfire” takes a deeper and darker approach than any Disney song before it or since. Twisted and at times sinister, “Hellfire” is the coin opposite of “Heaven’s Light,” as it’s a character study of Judge Claude Frollo and the complexity of his nature as a compromised authoritative figure who uses religion as a tool for entitled power. Tony Jay’s strong vocal performance carries the thought-provoking lyrics of dangerous white power over minorities and his sexual urges for a woman he’s sworn to never desire. With themes of lust, damnation, and selfish desires, “Hellfire” delivers not only one of the greatest Disney villains but the greatest Disney villain song of all time.
9. “Feed The Birds (Tuppence A Bag)” – Mary Poppins
While the most recognizable Disney songs are from their masterful animated films, “Mary Poppins” proves their live-action efforts can produce well-received songs. Admittedly, “Feed the Birds” is simplistic on its surface and slower-paced compared to some others on this list. This may be the reason why for some when they were children, it may not have been as much of a childhood favorite as “Spoon Full of Sugar” or “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” but the older you get, the more layered the song reveals itself to be. Mary Poppins, the nanny of the Banks children, gives one of her life lessons through a lullaby that encourages the children to look beyond their privileged lives – a song about the importance of charity, selflessness, and the smaller appreciative joys of life. Julie Andrews’ lovely singing performance emotes a gentleness to this timeless song. It’s a lot more understandable in hindsight why this was a personal favorite of Walt Disney himself.
8. “Reflection” – Mulan
“Reflection” may be one of the shorter Disney songs of its time, but it carries a bigger heart than most. Originally sung by Lea Salonga, the hit song from Disney’s “Mulan” is one of multiple Disney songs that proposes the question of identity and self-discovery. “Reflection” takes a closer look at the life of Mulan as a black sheep in her community. “Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me?” plays over and over as something relatable, no matter what gender you are, as we all have questioned our place in this world. It speaks of a longing to accept who we are and questions when it will be our time to show honor to the ones we love. The visual metaphor during the song, the shot of Mulan in the mirror, half makeup on and off, is one of the most visually striking shots in Disney’s history. The emotions of the scene, character and story are all elevated to greater heights by this beautiful song.
7. “Let It Go” – Frozen
No matter how annoyed some may have been about how overplayed this song was back in late 2013, you must admit, when you first heard “Let It Go” in theaters, it felt like a return to the form of classic Disney Princess songs. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s Oscar-winning music and writing for Elsa’s breakthrough moment after living a life of hiding who she truly was with her magical ice powers was breathtaking. This is a pivotal moment in “Frozen” as it tells another message of self-discovery and embracing the sides of you that society may look down upon. This can be impactful for a younger generation of Disney audiences and creates a narrative for all to be seen who undergo this struggle. A look at representation for anyone can be found within this piece. Tony Award-winning Broadway star Idina Menzel delivers a robust vocal performance as Elsa that harkens back to classic Disney but also brings a new style to a more updated and progressive side of the brand that we’re still feeling the impact of today. “Let It Go” showcases a gorgeous presentation of 3D animation and sets up a satisfying story arc for Elsa, making her one of the most beloved Disney characters.
6. “A Whole New World” – Aladdin
Aladdin features some of the most memorable and catchy songs from the Disney catalog, and “A Whole New World” is no exception. The soaring song sets the stage for the beginning of young love between Princess Jasmine and Aladdin, who poses as a fake Prince Ali to impress the Princess. The song takes its viewers on a journey, fulfilling the wants of Princess Jasmine to see the world on a magic carpet ride. The chemistry between the vocals of Brad Kane and Lea Salonga (another fantastic showcase) as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine respectively feels majestic through the characters’ travels in different countries. “A Whole New World” is a monumental duet for the ages that only pushed the boundaries musically for what Disney could do in the 1990s.
5. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” – Encanto
“Dos Oruguitas” was the emotional tearjerker that got “Encanto” the Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, but “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is the song that stuck with many just a bit more (so much so the Academy felt obligated to perform it during the 2021 ceremony despite the fact it wasn’t nominated for the Oscar). With music and lyrics by Tony-winning Broadway sensation Lin Manuel Miranda, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” is the Latin American cultural hit song Disney was long overdue for. The song is performed by an ensemble of the Madrigal family explaining their side of the story of outcast family member Bruno Madrigal. It’s a party of a tune that expresses bold flavors of Columbian music and mixes levity in its lyrics, as some of the people expressing their experiences of Bruno can feel exaggerated. The song graces well, along with the colorful animation and character expressions of the Madrigal family. Lin Manuel Miranda’s style is marked by the melodic overlap of the performers, something he’s known for in previous projects such as “Moana’s” “Where You Are,” “96,000” from “In the Heights,” and “Non-Stop” from “Hamilton.” With chart-topping numbers that far-exceeded expectations and continues to receive air-play till this day, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” will go down as one of Disney’s all-timers.
4. “Part Of Your World” – The Little Mermaid
If it’s not clear by this point, the collaboration between composer Alan Menken and songwriter Howard Ashman was one of the crowning jewels of modern Disney movies, and we have a lot to thank them for as a part of our childhood. One of the reasons for that was the song “Part of Your World” from “The Little Mermaid.” It is the gold standard of what it means to be a classic Disney “I want” song. The original voice of Disney Princess Ariel, Jodi Benson, brings a high-spirited sense of energy to the character and persuades you to care about the dream and ambitions of exploring the world and wanting to experience something outside your culture. Only so many words in the English dictionary can describe this song’s power and generational impact. Over 30 years later, the passing of the torch has gone from Jodi Benson to the young, talented Halle Bailey in the new “The Little Mermaid” live-action remake. In this new rendition, Halle Bailey gives an earth-shaking, passionate performance of the iconic song, bringing great honor and respect to the ones who paved the way for her moment in the spotlight. The only thing that feels out of place is the original’s baffling missed Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.
3. “Beauty And The Beast” – Beauty And The Beast
It’s probably safe to say that the ballroom dance in “Beauty and the Beast” is one of the most iconic moments in Disney’s long cinematic history. But the dance scene would be nothing without the song that accompanies it. The song of the same name displays the story of both Belle and Beast’s unlikely but blossoming relationship. Even with the ticking time clock stakes of the film, you can’t help but feel lost in the intimacy between the two lead characters. The late, great Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts is the perfect voice casting for the song as her soothing vocals balance a sense of wisdom and elegance from a place of love and care for both Belle and Beast. “Beauty and the Beast” is a wonderful piece of music that can only be described as a tale as old as time.
2. “Friend Like Me” – Aladdin
Sometimes, a movie’s best songs and scenes don’t have to be the deepest with the most existential meanings. Sometimes, the most incredible music scenes can just be lost in the fun and enchantment of what is being displayed, and “Friend Like Me” from 1992’s “Aladdin” fits that bill perfectly. The energetic song embodies the bright animated promise that Disney could and still can deliver. Robin Williams’ performance as Genie is wild, consistently humorous, and full of interjections that tell us precisely who Genie is and his place in the story. The use of horn-based instruments sucks you in right from the song’s beginning and takes you on a roller coaster ride of amusing excitement. Even years later, in the live-action remake, Will Smith’s updated hip-hop take on the track shows “Friend Like Me” is a song that can be interpreted in various ways and still deliver a lovable message of loyal friendship.
1. “Circle Of Life” – The Lion King
We all remember where we were when we first saw “The Lion King.” From the moment one belts the Zulu lyrics, “Nants ingonyama,” you are instantly transported to the film’s opening rising sun. “Circle Of Life” takes its stunning African-influenced musical composition and sets the stage for the world-building of Pride Rock, the homeplace of King Mufasa and his heir, Simba. Through the song’s majestic opening, the story explores the vast animal kingdom, making its way through the savannah to the presentation of the king’s newborn son, Simba. Carmen Twillie’s mesmerizing singing performance brings commanding attention to the escapism of this African world, guided by the “Hamlet”-like story we go on with Simba. The song is just as strong in the beginning as it is in the film’s climax, bringing things back full circle (pun intended) for this epic narrative. “Circle Of Life” set the bar of what it meant to be a top-tier Disney song as it respectfully depicted African culture with memorable lyrics and a powerful introduction.
What do you think of this list? What is your favorite Disney song? Have you seen “The Little Mermaid?” If so, what did you think of it and its songs? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.