There's no such thing as a bad Disney song. Some are just better than others.
Disney Animation's Renaissance period was a decade-long stretch that saw the revival of the fabled studio under the leadership of CEO Michael Eisner and Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. During that period, the House of Mouse put out some of its best work, beginning with 1989's The Little Mermaid, and continuing through The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999). And without a doubt, we best remember these movies for their music.
With live-action/CGI remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King hitting theaters this year, Beauty and the Beast having been remade in 2017, and a live-action Mulan scheduled for 2020, it's clear that Disney understands how beloved these films remain. And while some people will never get on board with remakes of their childhood favorites, these movies' overall success will hinge in large part on whether they nail the tunes.
To mark these upcoming films, we've decided to rank all of the original songs from the Renaissance period. There are… a lot of them. So we have to put forth some rules before we begin.
For one, only songs sung by characters as a musical number within the film count for this list. That means, tragically, that songs such as Phil Collins' "You'll Be in My Heart" from Tarzan and "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King aren't in the running. That whittles the list down to 48 songs, which is somewhat more manageable, though still pretty expansive. Also, please note that the only film in Disney's Renaissance period without a song on this list is The Rescuers Down Under (1990), as no one in this often underrated sequel actually sings.
And with that, let's begin. What are your favorite Disney songs from this period? Let us know in the comments!
'Fathoms Below,' The Little Mermaid (1989)
The opening song to The Little Mermaid is short and sweet and a little dark. It's mostly unmemorable, as we're immediately swept below the sea to meet the very merpeople they’re singing about.
Best Lyric: "From whence wayward westerlies blow"
'Daughters of Triton,' The Little Mermaid (1989)
Name all the daughters of Triton off the top of your head and I'll be impressed. Another short song from The Little Mermaid and another relatively forgettable one. Beyond this moment, Ariel's sisters don’t really matter, so it might be fair to say this song doesn't matter? (For what it's worth, the daughters of Triton are named Aquata, Adrena, Arista, Adena, Adella, Alana, and, you guessed it, their baby sister Ariel.)
Best Lyric: "And then there is the youngest in her musical debut/A seventh little sister, we're presenting her to you."
'Les Poissons,' The Little Mermaid (1989)
Prince Eric's palace chef, Chef Louis, loves two things: cooking and violently dismembering fish. Like poor Sebastian, we could do without this one.
Best Lyrics: "First you pound the fish flat with a mallet/Then you slash through the skin /Give the belly a slice/Then you rub some salt in."
'The Virginia Company,' Pocahontas (1995)
A pretty good entry point into the overall story of why these outsiders have come to the new world. It points out both the corruption of the company and these men’s hopes.
Best Lyric: "With a nugget for my Winnie/And another one for me/And all the rest'll go/To The Virginia Company."
'The Mob Song,' Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Gaston's fear mongering works when he convinces the townspeople that the Beast is going to come after their children and everything they love. So, in true ensemble form, they sing a song about how much they want to kill the Beast.
Best Lyric: "But I fear the wrong monster's released."
'The Court of Miracles,' The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Phoebus and Quasimodo find themselves in the Court of Miracles, surrounded and captured by Trouillefou and a bunch of goons. As far as group songs in Hunchback go, this one falls a little flat.
Best Lyric: "But the dead don't talk/So you won't be around/To reveal what you've found.”
'Mine, Mine, Mine,' Pocahontas (1995)
Governor Ratcliffe's big song has him wreathed in gold and singing about the riches all his men will dig up for him. "Mine," get it? As far as villain songs go, this one's fine. Not overly memorable.
Best Lyric: "My rivals back home/It's not that I'm bitter/But think how they'll squirm/When they see how I glitter!"
'A Star Is Born,' Hercules (1997)
Not the Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga movie. This is the final song in Hercules, and while it's not the best out of movie of great songs, it's still fun, and not just because it doesn't involve Cooper hanging from a ceiling fan.
Best Lyric: "Just remember in the darkest hour/Within your heart's the power/For making you a hero too."
'Trashin' the Camp,' Tarzan (1999)
As the only song in Tarzan actually sung by any of the cast members, we have to give "Trashin' the Camp" props. When the younger members of Tarzan's gorilla family come across the humans' camp in the middle of the jungle, they use the odds and ends they find to create music. Rosie O'Donnell scatting is an odd gift we didn't know the world needed 'til this.
Best Lyric: "Shooby doop dobby dop dobby doop dobby dah dah doo dap."
'Arabian Nights,' Aladdin (1992)
You've likely had this song stuck in your head more than once. No one could blame you — it's catchy. Some points haven't exactly aged well, though ("It's barbaric, but hey, it's home"), so that drags it down the list. But still, "Arabian Nights" is a short song that opens up a movie filled with bops, so we've gotta give it that.
Best Lyric: "When the wind's from the east and the sun's from the west/And the sand in the glass is right/Come on down stop on by/Hop a carpet and fly/To another Arabian night."
'Something There,' Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Belle and the Beast’s one song together isn’t really all that memorable when stacked up against both love songs from other Disney movies and the other songs in Beauty and the Beast, but it’s still charming and quiet in a way many Disney songs aren’t.
Best Lyric: “And when we touched she didn't shudder at my paw.”
'A Guy Like You,' The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Victor, Hugo, and Laverne play the roles of supportive best friends well, perhaps better than any other Disney sidekicks. This song is fun and the lyrics are equally positive and comedic, making it a pretty quality Disney song.
Best Lyric: “We all have gaped/At some Adonis/But then we crave a meal/More nourishing to chew.”
'Savages,' Pocahontas (1995)
Poignant as always, parts I and II of “Savages” have the British and the Native Americans going back and forth, calling each other “savages” as they prepare for battle. Obviously, we all know who was the true aggressor here, but it’s heartbreaking to watch these two groups try and tear each other apart out of fear and, in the case of the British, ignorance.
Best Lyric: “Is the death of all I love/Carried in the drumming of war?”
'The Gospel Truth I, II, III,' Hercules (1997)
We’re putting all three parts of “The Gospel Truth” into one entry because, together, they ultimately open the entire movie and introduce most of the major players. Hercules’ Muses open up the film in three parts: The story of how Zeus became king of the gods, a warning about Hades, and how Hercules lost his godhood but “retained his god-like strength.”
The soulful style was unlike anything we’d ever seen from a Disney movie in this era (or ever, really), and you instantly get to fall in love with the Muses and the story they’re about to tell.
Best Lyric: “The guy was too type A to just relax.”
'I Just Can't Wait to Be King,' The Lion King (1994)
As a young, confident Simba sings about what a great king he’ll be, he actually ends up causing chaos. Here, he’s ignorant to the actual work and responsibility that goes into ruling and, instead, like any other kid, focuses on all the freedom he’ll have once he’s a grown up and the fun parts of ruling a kingdom. Simba gets some help from Zazu here, too, which results in a fun back-and-forth as they try to overstep each other.
Best Lyric: “I'm brushing up on looking down”
'One Jump Ahead,' Aladdin (1992)
Here, we’re introduced to our titular hero as he does his best to escape the palace guards after stealing a loaf of bread. He escapes, thankfully, and along the way we’re shown how clever, kind, and charming he is. A diamond in the rough, if you will.
Best Lyric: “Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat/Otherwise we'd get along.”
'Heaven’s Light,' The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
As Quasimodo longs for love and the Gargoyles look on, he sings quietly to himself in the night and hopes for Esmerelda to love him. Short and beautiful, but not exactly memorable.
Best Lyric: “And as I ring these bells tonight/My cold dark tower seems so bright/I swear it must be heaven's light.”
'Zero to Hero,' Hercules (1997)
The Muses return in this midway-point song in Hercules, for which they tell us about all of Hercules’ latest achievements. Catchy and memorable, this is a great song that helps move the plot along while setting up exactly what’s wrong with all of Herc’s latest heroism: It’s all for him.
Best Lyric: “Who put the glad in gladiator?”
'Steady as the Beating Drum,' Pocahontas (1995)
In direct opposition to the men of “The Virginia Company” is this intro to the Powhatan tribe and their very different way of life. Rather than destroying the land they live on, they work with it.
Best Lyric: “Keep the sacred fire strong/Walk in balance all our days.”
'A Girl Worth Fighting For,' Mulan (1998)
One of the best parts about Mulan is that it doesn’t feature a generic love song but, instead, a rousing group number about everyone’s impossible ideal girlfriend. “A Girl Worth Fighting For” is equal parts entertaining and real, and the cut-off at the end where the soldiers come across a battlefield is a real cinematic gut-punch.
Best Lyric: “How 'bout a girl who's got a brain/Who always speaks her mind?/ Nah!”
'Belle,' Beauty and the Beast (1991)
As rude as the villagers are in this song (seriously, look at the lyrics to “Belle” if you have a chance), “Belle” definitely sets our heroine up as a true outsider. Belle is also a bit rude to the townies, though, so maybe it evens out? Here, we get the setup of much of the action in the movie. We’re introduced to Belle, Gaston, and the townies who would later turn against the Beast out of fear of the unknown.
Best Lyric: “Here's where she meets Prince Charming/But she won't discover that it's him 'til chapter three!”
'Out There,' The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Quasimodo’s first song (and arguably his most defining) is heartwarming and hopeful... but as far as heartwarming Disney songs about longing for something greater go, it’s not as great as its peers. If anything’s truly wonderful about this song, it’s the visuals that go with it as our hero uses the Cathedral as his playground.
Best Lyric: “All my life I watch them as I hide up here alone/Hungry for the histories they show me.”
'Go the Distance,' Hercules (1997)
A song of longing, “Go the Distance” has Hercules imagining himself as a hero. Over the course of the film, he’ll discover exactly what that means, but, for now, he’s full of hope and looking for a purpose. And that note he holds at the very end when he’s flying into the sunset with Pegasus? Unforgettable.
Best Lyric: “I would go most anywhere to find where I belong”
'Listen With Your Heart,' Pocahontas (1995)
Grandmother Willow’s (very) short song is simple and sweet and deep. The best part is probably the visuals associated with it — twirling leaves and colorful wind.
Best Lyric: “Listen with your heart, you will understand.”
'Topsy Turvy,' The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
As Quasimodo makes his way out of the Cathedral, he’s greeted by the Feast of Fools and crowned King of Fools by Clopin Trouillefou. While “Topsy Turvy” moves the plot forward and has some catchy bits, it’s not the catchiest of the catchy, but it’s still very catchy.
Best Lyric: “Ev'ry man's a king and ev'ry king's a clown.”
'Honor to Us All,' Mulan (1998)
Here’s exactly the world our titular heroine doesn’t want to live in. As she’s primped and prodded into being the “perfect bride,” we can also see where this is going. This isn’t the life for her, but the cultural implications of breaking the norm would be hard on her.
Best Lyric: “We all must serve our Emperor/Who guards us from the Huns/A man by bearing arms/A girl by bearing sons."
'Be Prepared,' The Lion King (1994)
“Be Prepared” might not be the most memorable song in The Lion King, but is the most clever. Take another look at the lyrics Scar is singing when you get a chance. While the lyrics are overtaken by the lime green visuals and the Nazi-style hyenas (seriously), “Be Prepared” is still surprisingly great.
Best Lyric: “So prepare for the coup of the century/Be prepared for the murkiest scam.”
'Under the Sea,' The Little Mermaid (1989)
Sebastian’s first song in The Little Mermaid is a boppy, memorable jam that’s in direct opposition to Ariel’s “A Part of Your World.” This song is so good not just because it so easily gets stuck in your head but because it’s perfectly indicative of the character singing it and it spurs the story forward.
Best Lyric: “That's why it's hotter/Under the water”
'Prince Ali,' Aladdin (1992)
Introducing the new Aladdin, Prince Ali. “Prince Ali” is a spiritual continuation of “Friend Like Me,” as Genie sings about what he’s actually given Aladdin versus what he can give him. Bragging about all of the slaves who just love working for Aladdin is… something… but, yeah, it’s still a catchy song.
Best Lyric: “Now, try your best to stay calm/Brush up your Sunday salaam/Then come and meet his spectacular coterie.”
'The Bells of Notre Dame,' The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
As far as intro songs go, “The Bells of Notre Dame” likely ranks as the most dramatic. Death, persecution, and corruption lead a judge to let a “foul creature” live in the towers of Notre Dame cathedral.
Best Lyric: “And for one time in his life/Of power and control/Frollo felt a twinge of fear/For his immortal soul”
'One Last Hope,' Hercules (1997)
Danny DeVito’s Phil is a gift to the world, as is “One Last Hope,” his one and only song in Hercules. In this song, Phil goes from unwilling mentor to a full-time teacher and, through an equally hilarious and impressive montage, trains Hercules into harnessing his god-like strength.
Best Lyric: “Don't believe the stories/That you read on all the crockery.”
'Just Around the Riverbend,' Pocahontas (1995)
As Pocahontas questions what she wants out of life, she and her animal friends take off on the river and she sets the plot moving. In a movie full of great, meaningful songs, “Just Around the Riverbend” is short and sweet and to the point.
Best Lyric: “To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing/What's around the riverbend.”
'I Won’t Say (I’m in Love),' Hercules (1997)
Megara is an underrated heroine with an underrated love song. “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love),” Meg’s duet with the Muses, is funny, poignant, and a perfect transition song.
Best Lyric: “Face it like a grown-up/When you gonna own up that you got got got it bad.”
'God Help the Outcasts,' The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
As the others in the Cathedral ask for selfish favors from God, Esmerelda prays for the less fortunate and her people, “the poor and downtrod.” This is a lovely contrasting moment to the performer we saw onstage near the beginning of the film. She’s not just beautiful and badass but also kind.
Best Lyric: “The poor and unlucky, the weak and the odd/I thought we all were the children of God.”
'Be Our Guest,' Beauty and the Beast (1991)
As Lumière tries his best to make Belle feel comfortable in the Beast’s castle, he and the others offer up a feast for the imagination. Dancing plates and flowing champagne are only the beginning. The castle comes back alive with the addition of a guest for everyone to serve. While that’s… actually kind of dark… it’s charming to see Lumière, Ms. Potts, and everyone else so happy after they’ve clearly cowered in the shadows for so long.
Best Lyric: “Try the grey stuff, it's delicious.”
'Hakuna Matata,' The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King’s lovable dynamic duo introduce Simba to a laid-back lifestyle in this defining song. Yes, it will get stuck in your head if you listen to it again — and you can’t even be mad about it.
Best Lyric: “It's our problem-free philosophy/Hakuna Matata!”
'Kiss the Girl,' The Little Mermaid (1989)
If you think about it, it’s just as likely for Disney love songs to be sung by either of the two characters who are in love as it is the people around them. Sebastian and his band of marsh-dwelling animals try their hardest to set the ambiance for Ariel and Prince Eric to fall in love and share a kiss. They might not have succeeded, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t sing a killer song.
Best Lyric: “And you don't know why/But you're dying to try/You wanna kiss the girl.”
'Reflection,' Mulan (1998)
“Reflection” is almost a sequel of sorts to “Honor to Us All.” Mulan worries about her place in the world in a short but dramatic song with accompanying visuals that have long stuck with a generation.
Best Lyric: “Now I see/That if I were truly to be myself/I would break my family's heart”
'Can You Feel the Love Tonight,' The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King’s love song barely qualifies for this list because we never see Simba and Nala singing along, and Timon doesn’t sing the entire thing. Nevertheless, this crooning love ballad is still deeply memorable.
Best Lyric: "And if he falls in love tonight/It can be assumed/His carefree days with us are history/In short, our pal is doomed.”
'A Whole New World,' Aladdin (1992)
A love song for the ages. This is the only song Princess Jasmine gets in Aladdin, but it’s an incredibly memorable one. As Aladdin and Jasmine travel the world together in a single night (seriously, that is one very fast flying carpet), they fall in love and Jasmine sorta-kinda calls Aladdin on his BS.
Best Lyric: “Soaring, tumbling, freewheeling/Through an endless diamond sky.”
'Poor Unfortunate Souls,' The Little Mermaid (1989)
This villain song is clever and cinematic as they come. Between the eels and the boiling underwater caldron that accompany this fun, menacing song that preys on on heroine’s insecurities and results in what is essentially the film’s entire plot. Via this song, which acts as a spell, Ariel gets her legs and loses her voice.
Best Lyric: “They weren't kidding when they called me, well, a witch.”
'Beauty and the Beast,' Beauty and the Beast (1991)
While the Céline Dion and Peabo Bryson duet that came along with the original soundtrack for Beauty and the Beast is a lovely way to end the film, Ms. Potts’ original rendition can’t be beat. This song about change and growth is as memorable as they come, and if you didn’t croon along with it and sigh as you watched Belle and the Beast dance together, you probably don’t have a soul.
Best Lyric: “Bittersweet and strange/Finding you can change/Learning you were wrong.”
'Friend Like Me,' Aladdin (1992)
If there ever was a celebratory blowout in song form, this is it. Robin Williams’ iconic turn as the Genie is best summarized in this fun, over-the-top song about all the ways Aladdin could improve his life with a few simple words. Equal parts smooth salesman and charming best friend, Genie’s got the perfect intro sequence with this colorful, memorable song.
Best Lyric: “So don'tcha sit there slack-jawed, buggy-eyed/I'm here to answer all your midday prayers."
'Part of Your World,' The Little Mermaid (1989)
The ultimate song of longing. If you grew up watching The Little Mermaid, it’s likely the images of Ariel sweeping and dancing through the water are ingrained in your memory. After watching Ariel best a shark, we get to see the world through her eyes. It’s a world of wonder and beauty, one in which true love exists and a girl can be more than her lot in life. Yes, she’s innocent and more than a little childish (she is, after all, a child), but, with this song, Ariel captured the hearts of a generation of kids.
Best Lyric: “Betcha on land/They understand/Bet they don't reprimand their daughters/Bright young women/Sick o' swimmin'/Ready to stand.”
'Colors of the Wind,' Pocahontas (1995)
As far as powerful lyrics in Disney songs go, “Colors of the Wind” might take the cake. Pocahontas itself is arguably the most profound of the Renaissance films in the themes it explores — colonialism, racism, and, in a way, climate change — and “Colors of the Wind” really sells that point.
Best Lyric: “You think the only people who are people/Are the people who look and think like you.”
'Hellfire,' The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
In direct contrast to “Heaven’s Light,” which comes right before it, is “Hellfire.” Unlike Quasimodo’s innocent love for Esmerelda, Frollo’s desire for her is dark and twisted. Not only are the lyrics evocative and powerful, so are the visuals that go with this song. Definitely a top contender.
Best Lyric: “It’s not my fault/If in God’s plan/He made the devil/So much stronger than a man.”
'Gaston,' Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Referring to himself as a “specimen” is only the beginning of this macho-masculine song in which every person in town tells Gaston how great he is. Funny, catchy, and truly memorable, listening to “Gaston” is like eating four dozen raw eggs and using antlers in all your decorating: You’ll come out more of a man, guaranteed.
Best Lyric: “And every last inch of me's covered with hair.”
'I'll Make a Man Out of You,' Mulan (1998)
This song works in any and all situations to make that situation 10 times cooler. Li Shang’s song about toughening up his soldiers for war is a modern classic and absolutely one of the best Disney songs out there.
Best Lyric: “With all the strength of a raging fire/Mysterious as the dark side of the moon.”