Disney films are almost always triumphs of animation and imagination, but they are also heavily associated with their catchy music. From the earliest of their animated shorts through to big screen outings like Moana, their tunes are part of our universal playbook. Indeed, Touchstone’s Dick Tracy notwithstanding, Disney or Pixar have been awarded the Academy Award for Best Song a whopping 13 times.
Here’s a list of some of our completely subjective favourites from the last eight decades or so listed chronologically. Please comment with your favourites below, but please remember this is a “favourites” list and your opinion may be different.
“When You Wish Upon a Star” – PINOCCHIO (1940)
In many ways, this is the song you probably most associate with Disney whether you are conscious of or not. The opening number from Pinocchio, written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, was the also the first to win a musical Oscar for the studio. Also used as the opening theme to the various Walt Disney anthology television series in the 1950s and 1960s, you’ll hear it in instrumental form almost every time the Disney logo appears before a feature.
“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” – SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946)
Despite being Disney’s second Oscar-winning song, and the theme of the popular theme park attraction Splash Mountain, the film that it originates from is no longer available to audiences. Although the film remains a controversial Disney release, often described as racist in its depiction of race relations in the Reconstructionist Era, the song is inescapably joyful. Composed by Allie Wrubel with lyrics by Ray Gilbert, it later became a chart hit for Johnny Mercer in 1947!
“The Unbirthday Song” – ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)
Chances are pretty good you’ll hear this on your unbirthday. Sung by the Mad Hatter and the March Hare in the animated film, it’s a song that you can enjoy on 364 days of the year (365 on leap years)!
“Cruella De Vil” – 101 DALMATIANS (1961)
One of Disney’s more meta songs, the Melville Leven penned song is “written” in the film by songwriter Roger Radcliffe (voiced by Bill Lee) who is inspired by Cruella’s name to sing a song about her.
“Step in Time” – MARY POPPINS (1964)
Another one of those films where almost every song belongs on this list. Brothers Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman deliver a song that works both as a catchy an immediately singable ditty and a killer dance number as well that recalls the golden era of Hollywood musicals. If you’ve seen the subsequent Broadway production of this number, tiny chimney sweeps are probably tap dancing their way through your head right now.
“I Wan’na Be Like You” – THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967)
One of the few songs from the 1967 film, along with “Bare Necessities,” that made its way into the 2016 remake. Once again, the Sherman Brothers deliver a jazz/Dixieland sound that remains hip to this day. The famous scat bit came from Louis Prima laying down his vocals first, with Phil Harris deciding to not repeat the lyrics but make up his own song as he went.
“Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” – THE ARISTOCATS (1970)
This song, performed by Scatman Crothers as Scat Cat and the rest of the cast present, is a big band swing that almost seems quaint even by 1970 standards. Yet listen to it for any amount of time, and we challenge you not to start tapping your toes. We’ll just quietly ignore the racism for the sake of swing just this once. Disney hasn’t though: the lines sung by Shun Gon the Chinese cat, voiced by Paul Winchell, have been removed from the post-1996 soundtracks.
“Part of Your World” – THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)
As the first film to mark the revival of Disney’s brand as animation kings, following a troubled 1980s in which the company narrowly avoided a hostile takeover. While some might argue that “Under the Sea” is the better tune, Ariel’s hopeful cry to be something more echoed Disney’s. It also marks the first Disney collaboration between the music team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who would reunite for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, released after Ashman’s death.
“Be Our Guest” – BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)
Menken and Ashman’s title song may have won the Oscar, but nominee “Be Our Guest” remains the most fun. A show-stopper of a tune from the late, great Jerry Orbach that would just as readily fit on a Broadway stage (and it was from 1994 to 2007), it also gave us The Simpsons classic tune “See My Vest.”
“A Whole New World” – ALADDIN (1992)
Did we dare close our eyes? No, because this song told us not to. The original version was sung by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga during the film, but it was the easy listening cover from Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle that went to #1 on the US Billboard charts. Not only an Oscar winner, and the only Disney song to win a Grammy Award for Song of the Year, it takes us over, sideways and under on a magic carpet ride.
“What’s This?” – THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)
What’s this? A Disney film in everything but name, as it was actually released through Touchstone Pictures, the song is now a Disney staple. Danny Elfman composed, scored and provided the singing voice for one of the most infectious tunes of several seasons.
“I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” – THE LION KING (1994)
All the songs of THE LION KING are undeniably powerful, so this one comes down to personal taste. The Tim Rice and Elton John collaborations on the award-winning “Circle of Life” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” are unquestionable classics, but if you’re looking for the purely joyous parts of the film (the earworm of “Hakuna Matata” notwithstanding) this is your bunny.
“Friends on the Other Side” – THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009)
Disney’s first cel-animated feature in 5 years was also its last to date. However, the joyous and gorgeously rendered film made every effort to revive that old-school Disney feeling with tunes like this one, written and conducted by Randy Newman and sung by Keith David, who voices the film’s villain, Dr. Facilier.
“Let It Go” – FROZEN (2014)
Do we have to explain this one? The film almost single-handedly returned Disney to the top of the heap in the animation jungle, with a centrepiece song that became the favourite of children and the bane of parents everywhere. A song of liberation that could just as readily be a metaphor for coming out, written by husband and wife songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, had a certified spot in the Disney canon.
“You’re Welcome” – MOANA (2016)
The most recent entry on this list has a terrific pedigree, with an unlikely singer. Penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda at the height of his Hamilton fame, it’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who provides vocals on this incredibly fun song/rap about the joys of being a demi-god.