Revisiting films from Disney’s Golden Age can feel like slipping into a pair of well-worn pyjamas. Cosy, soft and, crucially, familiar. Familiarity is the currency Disney exchanges to win over audiences. These films are wrapped in an impenetrable nostalgia; Disney encourages people to project their childhood onto each films’ shiny surface of sentimentality. But when this layer is peeled back the relatively simple, highly effective machine is revealed.

Disney protagonists are unique: underappreciated and misunderstood by the community they grew up in. They are empowered by an internal purpose to complete some individual goal. They are thwarted by villains, they bond with sidekicks and they usually fall in love. It is a thoroughly reliable formula, recycled from the beginning of storytelling. The exceptionalism hanging over them is an idea straight out of capitalism: the best, most dynamic, most exciting figures will hypothetically (or literally in Ariel’s case) rise to the top. The very idea of the “I want” song suggests that the most we can expect from the most exceptional among us is to see them accrue more wealth, claim their rightful crown, get what they want because they have wanted it from the beginning.

Music is the fuel which propels these tightly engineered stories forward. Each song is given an essential task, in introducing, developing, halting or building the story. Perhaps the most crucial category is the “I want” number. These songs are designed to encapsulate the obstacle and the intention at the heart of the film. The best one’s hint at the internal workings of the character singing while also being catchy songs.

  1. Someday My Prince Will Come – Snow White (1937)

We must give Snow White credit for very transparently declaring herself a damsel in distress. If these songs are supposed to establish character intention and story obstacle, ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ certainly does that! Snow White’s, (yes that is her legal, God-given name,) intention is to wait for the eponymous prince and the obstacle is that he has not arrived yet. Fair enough! Kind of a boring song though.

Snow White

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

  1. Reflection – Mulan (1998)

Mulan has one of the best Disney soundtracks of all time. There is unshakeable energy that leaps out of ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’, a perfect blend of silliness and severity that endears the audience to Mulan and her family in ‘Honour To Us All’. But ‘Reflection’? It’s kind of a drag! The song is slow and annoyingly melodramatic in the way only a 90’s ballad can be. I give this song marks for being iconic and within my vocal range, (perfect for belting in the shower,) but otherwise it is not great! Or at least does not reach the heights of this otherwise unimpeachable score.


Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

  1. How Far I’ll Go – Moana (2016)

It was somewhat thrilling to see Disney put out an original film in 2016 amidst their slew of lacklustre sequels and deeply horrifying remakes, (looking at Will Smith as the Genie in Aladdin was like staring directly into the uncanny valley). But in my experience, Moana’s soundtrack has diminishing returns. The songs are not as tightly woven or as cleverly self-referential as they had been in the Disney Renaissance. ‘How Far I’ll Go’ is indicative of that: easily digestible but frequently building towards a forgettable melody.

Moana 1

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

7. Into the Unknown – Frozen 2 (2019)

‘Into the Unknown’ is everything ‘Let It Go’ wishes it was. It’s mysterious and haunting before it is brash and loud. The song establishes an unspoken, effective rhythm: quiet build-up of an eerie melody, a cacophony of noise and then unsettling silence.  Elsa’s internal struggles are projected, through belts that echo back to her. I can’t remember what her internal struggles were because Frozen 2 is entirely forgettable, but this song still manages to convey the flurry of feelings that I assume she is struggling to supress.

Frozen 2

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

  1. Go the Distance – Hercules (1997)

Hercules utilises the presence of the Muses to great musical effect. They are the assertive narrators in ‘Gospel Truth’, the frivolous fangirls in ‘Zero to Hero’. Their unrelenting “oohs” and “ahs” in ‘I Won’t Say I’m In Love’ both complete Disney’s best love song and gives the audience insight into what it feels like to be Meg, exhausted by the prospect of being in love and yet enthralled by its jazzy twists and turns. Unfortunately, the Muses are nowhere to be seen during ‘Go the Distance’ and that is why it is the film’s worst song. Sad and skinny Hercules certainly commits to the number but all I think when I hear ‘Go the Distance’ is: Wow, I really love the Muses! Still, the worst song in Hercules is a pretty good song.


Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

  1. When Will My Life Begin? – Tangled (2011)

There is nothing in this world I love more than lists! Making them, completing them, writing them so I feel like I am doing something but really, I am avoiding the things I should be doing…this song is just one long list! So, yeah, I love it! Visually the scene is thrillingly creative, but the song itself loses some of its verve without the innovative use of space, (and hair!)


Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

  1. Almost There – The Princess and the Frog (2010)

The setting of Disney films is often incidental, located in fantastical lands or vaguely real locations, but the location and the era are both crucial in establishing the tone of The Princess and the Frog. It is New Orleans in 1926 and our princess is working to establish her dream rather than stumbling upon it. ‘Almost There’ is a joyful ode to the working class, a unique celebration of perseverance amidst the usual upholding of ruling hierarchies.

Princess And The Frog

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

  1. Out There – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

The music of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was written with the express intent of transforming this animation into a lucrative Broadway show. Which explains why the music in The Hunchback of Notre Dame is somewhat atypical for the studio. Grandiose and operatic in a way that Disney had only toyed with up to that point, Hunchback boasts in a dramatic soundtrack which befits the intensity of the story. Considering how much of departure this film was, ‘Out There’ is a perfect encapsulation of everything Disney is trying to achieve with the “I want” number. Our endearing leading man is an outcast expressing his desire to escape the claustrophobic presence of his annoying gargoyle friends and be a part of the hubbub of Paris!

Hunchback Of Notre Dame

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

  1. I Just Can’t Wait to Be King – The Lion King (1994)

This was a tough call, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ is an undeniable classic. In fact, one of the only high points of watching Jon Favreau’s photorealistic Discovery Channel documentary, also known as The Lion King (2019), was being reminded how eternally delightful this song is. Reimagining the high stakes of this kingdom through a child’s eyes is endearing, and makes the stark tonal shift following Mufasa’s death all the more jarring.

Lion King

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

  1. Part of Your World – The Little Mermaid (1998)

And yet! ‘Part of Your World’ was destined to win! The animation is so stunning in its inventiveness, the lyrics so deftly cut to the heart of who this frivolous, yet sweet teenager is. The actual song quietly deflates, with a crestfallen Ariel literally sinking to the bed of the ocean, but the reprise of ‘Part of Your World’ offers an electrifying conclusion to this song about being young and emotional and incapable of determining what is real.

Little Mermaid 2

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

So, what can be garnered form the experience of recognising the machine of the “I want” song and listening to them? These songs expose and encompass the focus at the heart of each film. Upbeat and bouyant or sombre and heartfelt, the “I want” number is always an interested barometer for the films they are in.