Since the beginning of the Disney Renaissance (c. 1989), animated films have followed a sort of formula when it comes to musical numbers. There's the introduction, the villain's anthem, the comic ensemble piece, and the love song, among others. And of course, there's the hero's song, sometimes referred to as the "I Want" song. Almost always performed as a solo near the beginning of the film, the piece normally describes who our hero is and who they want to become, or where they are and where they want to go.
Disney's first "I Want" song, "I'm Wishing," appears in 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the first full-length animated feature film). It's sweet and short, with the titular princess singing her wish for love into a well. While hope for love has continued to feature heavily in Disney's musicals, the heroes of later films sing about their desire for adventure, self-understanding, and freedom.
Taking excellence of animation, lyrics, and orchestration into account, here is a list of the top ten hero songs from Disney's theatrically released feature films:
10. "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" from The Lion King (1993)
"King" has a lively tune with fantastically fun visuals that separate it from the rest of the film, yet highlight the warm color palette of Disney's African savanna. Among the other hero songs, it's unique in having a choral component. Thematically, this is appropriate: a large part of Simba's journey is his exile from family and subjects, so the audience needs to see him as part of his community. However, this song falls near the bottom of the list because it shows us Simba before he experiences any conflicts or struggles--he's already at the top, with nothing separating him from his goal but a little time.
9. "Reflection" from Mulan (1998)
"Reflection" is a lovely song, no question about that. In less than two minutes, it captures all of Mulan's heartache and self-doubt, thanks in part to Lea Salonga's stunning voice. The sequence itself is simple, but each shot is beautifully composed--it's hard not to love the moment Mulan stares at her half-masked face in the temple. Where this song struggles as a hero song is reflected (get it?) in the title: it looks back, rather than forward. Mulan recognizes her problems, but does not yet have a solution for them.
8. "Strangers Like Me" from Tarzan (1999)
Okay, okay, okay, we all know that Tarzan does not actually sing this song in the film. The reason it makes this list (over, say, "I'm Still Here" from Treasure Planet) is that the character of Tarzan does sing it in the Broadway musical, making it a legit hero song in some part of the Disney universe. It's a song with a lot of energy and a great hook, sung by Phil Collins over the film's third montage. "Strangers" helps to move the movie's narrative along, showing, for example, the budding romance between Tarzan and Jane, and Clayton's instability--but it comes too late in the film to be a perfect hero song.
7. "Go the Distance" from Hercules (1997)
Herc is a man with a plan, and "Distance" shows the beginning of his transformation from meek to confident (or zero to hero, if you prefer). It moves with the narrative, rather than pausing it, as we follow Hercules on his journey to the temple of Zeus. While the landscapes that he passes through are pretty spectacular, the song peters off inside the grey temple. We need the revival brought by the reprise for "Distance" to feel complete.
6. "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid (1989)
This is the song that most people think about when they hear "I Want" song. It's the first one from the Disney Renaissance era, and (pardon the pun) it made a pretty big splash. It's an earworm that walks a fine line between pop ballad and aria, and it's hard not to love the lyrics that demonstrate Ariel's clueless love for the human world. Ariel's cavern may be filled with delightful trinkets, but its azure walls are not a very interesting to watch a dramatic performance--especially when you compare it to later numbers like "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl."
5. "Almost There" from The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Well, here's a song that certainly stands out from the rest. Not only is it Disney's last (as of now) traditionally animated hero song, but it takes a break from dramatic ballads and throws us into an upbeat jazzy tune. The art deco style and rich golden tones capture the spirit of the Roarin' Twenties. When we meet her as an adult, Tiana is much closer to her dream than most Disney heroes. She hasn't been living in a bubble, waiting for something to fall into her lap--she's been working her whole life to get where she is. Unfortunately, while the theme and tone of "Almost There" are memorable, the melody and lyrics are weaker than other songs on this list.
4. "Let it Go" from Frozen (2013)
This song has been played and replayed and overplayed so many times that a tiny part of me resents putting it so high on the list, but as we sometimes have to remind ourselves, just because something is popular doesn't mean it's bad. And when you actually watch the film's "Let It Go" sequence, it's hard not to be moved by some part of it. The choreography, the color palette, the lyrics and the emotions they convey... You almost forget that the song, while empowering, is (in the context of the film) about Elsa abandoning the people of her kingdom to potentially freeze to death. There's also something tonally shallow about the orchestration that doesn't quite match the richness of the animation.
3. "Just Around the Riverbend" from Pocahontas (1995)
The vagueness of Pocahontas' desires--she wants adventure, or change, or something--could easily be considered a weakness, but is actually a secret strength. Super-specific Disney "I Want" songs are harder for audiences to identify with, but we can all connect to the anxiousness and excitement of wanting to know what the future holds. The song leaves us with a perfect portrait of who our hero is, and why she makes the decisions she does in the film. While the landscape that Pocahontas paddles through is lovely (if not historically accurate), the sequence is hurt by too much sidekick action. However, the song is melodically spectacular, taking the audience on an emotional ride that matches the flow and power of the river.
2. "Belle (Reprise)" from Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Yes, it's less than a minute long, and yes, it's a reprise, but can you deny the power of "I want adventure in the great wide somewhere..."? The sequence is almost perfect, with a gloriously painted wide shot showing the audience "the great wide somewhere" as Belle runs into the field. And it probably inspired thousands of young children to blow on all the dandelions they could get their hands on, much to their parents' chagrin. While the opening song "Belle" is all about our main character, it's hard to call it her hero song, as it is sung primarily about her, and not by her. Therefore, the reprise, however short, fills that role.
1. "Out There" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
I didn't want to put this at the top of this list. With Hunchback being my favorite Disney film, I thought that I was just being biased. But there's no denying the superiority of composition, and how perfectly the animation fits the music. The shots are long and skillfully executed, mimicking techniques we expect in the best live-action films (and there's no beating Notre Dame's exterior for a set piece). One of the song's strengths lies in its dual format: Frollo's song against Quasimodo's. If you listen carefully, the same musical themes that are played in minor while Frollo sings become major in our hero's half--and these motifs follow the characters throughout the film. While most audience members will never know the feeling of being actually locked inside a cathedral for their entire lives, this song connects us to a man we could never otherwise understand by humanizing and de-othering one of Disney's most unconventional heroes.
And there you have it: the top 10 best Disney hero songs. Was your favorite one on the list? If the answer's yes--or no!--feel free to talk about it in the comments section!