Every Song From the Disney Renaissance (1989-'99), Ranked: Critics' Take
It's 2017, and generations young and old will get to relive a slice of the glory days of the late-20th-century Disney Renaissance, with live-action remakes of '90s classics Aladdin and The Lion King reportedly in the works, and even a non-Disney reboot of The Little Mermaid in the pipeline. But first up is the highly anticipated Beauty and the Beast revival hitting theaters Friday (March 17).
If you're not familiar with the Disney Renaissance, it's the wondrous period from 1989 to 1999 during which the studio created 10 iconic animated films -- in chronological order, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan -- thus resulting in some of the most classic Disney songs ever made.
We mostly have the composer and lyricist team of musical masterminds Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to thank for that, with additional contributions to the canon coming from composer/producer Hans Zimmer, as well as legendary musicians Elton John and Phil Collins. Not including the films' scores, there are 45 songs in total from the Renaissance (not counting the super-slight "Court of Miracles" from Hunchback or "Listen With Your Heart" from Pocahontas), though none come from Rescuers, which featured no original songs. In honor of the new Beauty and the Beast coming, the Billboard staff felt it was only right to rank all of these classics.
Take a look at where each song ranks on Billboard's list, and listen to our playlist below to really get you in the zone. Let the Disney debates begin.
45. "A Girl Worth Fighting For," Mulan
Disney wasn’t exactly known for it’s politically correct content at the time of its Renaissance, but this one is likely the one to most trigger the feminist viewers. Although the suitor song sounds cute in melody, its lyrics mention men’s expectation of women fawning over their strength and preparing meals for them. And when Mulan tries to sneak in a line about women with brains that like to speak their mind, their response is even more frustrating: “Nah.” – TAYLOR WEATHERBY
Despite having very different storylines, Pocahontas and Beauty and the Beast happened to feature extremely similar scenes of angry crowds gathering and chanting about the subjects whom they were ready to attack. Both were led by the movies' antagonists -- Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas and Gaston in Beauty -- but neither song really added a spark to their respective films that made them worthy of singing along to. In fact, both songs inflict enough fear that the little kids watching probably never want to hear the songs (or witness the fiery scenes) again. – T.W.
42. "God Help the Outcasts," The Hunchback of Notre Dame
It’s arguable that the storyline and songs in Hunchback focus a little too much on protagonist Quasimodo’s deformities, so hearing the gorgeous gypsy Esmeralda sing a song about the less fortunate – and seeing Quasi’s touched reaction to her prayer – is endearing. The only thing is, amidst the other classic Disney songs of the time, the somber vibe of this one makes it a fall a little flat. – T.W.
41. "Heaven’s Light/Hellfire," The Hunchback of Notre Dame
A duet of sorts from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, sung by Tony Jay and Tom Hulce, the song juxtaposes Quasimodo's innocent longing for Esmerelda and Frollo's contempt for the gypsy girl who has bewitched him with impure thoughts. But in a mostly overlooked film, it's one of the least memorable tunes. — DENISE WARNER
40. "Honor to Us All," Mulan
The obligatory Everyone’s Excited About Something Except the Protagonist song from Mulan, “Honor to Us All” is a little too expository to be all that catchy, and the traditional Eastern musical influence feels well-intentioned but clumsy. The musical round the second verse is presented in is a nice touch, though. – ANDREW UNTERBERGER
39. "Mine, Mine, Mine," Pocahontas
Disney has a way of making its villains super unlikable, but some of the bad guys do get their moment in the spotlight with epically catchy tunes, like Ursula's "Poor Unfortunate Souls" in The Little Mermaid or Scar's "Be Prepared" in The Lion King (both featured later in our list). When it came time for Governor Ratcliffe's big moment in Pocahontas, his greed overpowered his evil, and frankly his voice is too much like an opera singer rather than a mean spirit. Unfortunately for the governor, he failed to even compare to his villainous peers. – T.W.
38. "A Guy Like You," The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The three lively gargoyles of Notre Dame (Victor, Hugo and Laverne) offered some positivity in Quasimodo’s otherwise rather depressing tale, and really did so with this ego-booster of a tune. Sure, they made a little mockery of his unique stature, but Quasi’s trio of pals meant well in reassuring him that he’s a catch -- especially in Esmeralda’s eyes. – T.W.
37. "The Bells of Notre Dame," The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Setting the scene of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is no easy feat, but the musical's opening number fares quite well, employing Latin choruses for tone and effect. Compared to the highest heights of the Disney canon, however, the song lacks a certain je ne sais quoi -- to use the language of Victor Hugo's original novel. — D.W.
36. "One Last Hope," Hercules
When Danny DeVito voices a little goat man in an animated Disney movie, obviously something pretty silly is going to come of it. His role as tritaognist (and in this song, Hercules' advisor) Phil is comparable to Robin Williams' Genie in Aladdin, adding hilarity and hopeful motivation to the film's eventual hero. While this song does have a jazzy, bounce-along beat -- and DeVito deserves some kudos for trying his hand at singing -- his voice and hype doesn't quite measure up to Williams' in "Friend Like Me." – T.W.
35. "Two Worlds," Tarzan
Disney doesn’t do movie openings without an epic number, and the dynamic drums (and vocals courtesy of Phil Collins) deliver just that for the final movie of the Renaissance. "Two Worlds" provides the perfect summary soundtrack to the intro montage shown of Tarzan’s family and his soon-to-be gorilla family, but as a song, Collins pretty clearly managed to outdo himself with other tunes throughout the film. – T.W.
34. "Topsy Turvy," Hunchback of Notre Dame
When Paris gets turned upside down, Quasimodo becomes a king. That’s what happens on Topsy Turvy day (also known as the Festival of Fools), as narrated in song by jovial gypsy Clopin Trouillefou, making for a lively and colorful scene in the movie – perhaps the best and most Disney-like of the entire Hunchback film and soundtrack. – T.W.
33. "Something There," Beauty and the Beast
For a song that accompanies such a climactic cinematic moment -- falling in love -- this song has little spark, especially in comparison to the film's grandiose ballroom scene. As both Belle and the Beast sing their internal monologues while realizing their true feelings for one another, the arrangement falls short; particularly when compared to the film's more obvious fan-favorites. – LYNDSEY HAVENS
32. "Arabian Nights," Aladdin
“It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Aladdin’s intro song might not be the karaoke classic that some later jams rightly became -- and the lyrical broad-stroking was culturally insensitive enough that they had to alter some of the lyrics for future versions – but it sets a tone like few others. – A.U.
31. "Son of Man," Tarzan
Not the undeniable smash that “You’ll Be in My Heart” was, but arguably more reminiscent of peak Phil Collins – a multi-drum-track banger of self-discovery with a propulsive synth hook that gets you swinging from vine to vine. Given what we know of Phil’s own absentee relationship with daughter Lily, though, lyrics like “There’s no one there to guide you/ No one to take your hand” take on a slightly more bitter irony than he likely intended. – A.U.
30. "Out There," The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Perhaps the only good thing to come from living life in a cathedral with dancing gargoyles was Quasimodo’s “Out There,” an emotional, people-watching number that expressed his longing to join society. Loners, this one’s for you. – ADELLE PLATON
29. "Prince Ali," Aladdin
Menken proved to be a master of memorable songwriting, incorporating the catchiest of inflections and melodies that also happen to seamlessly fit the theme of whatever movie the tune was part of. “Prince Ali” is a prime example, serving as the extremely sing-along worthy soundtrack to Aladdin’s Prince parade. – T.W.
28. Poor Unfortunate Souls, The Little Mermaid
Beyond voice-snatching, Ursula had a knack for whipping up supervillain anthems. Enter “Poor Unfortunate Souls," a wicked diss track to merfolk that nonetheless isn’t quite as lethal as Scar’s bad-guy theme in The Lion King. – A.P.
27. "Just Around the Riverbend," Pocahontas
You can almost feel the chilling wind on your neck and splash of water on your face as Pocahontas sings this song while paddling down the river. What starts off as a rousing and rallying song about dreaming big takes a turn towards the end, as the tempo slows and the lyrics become far less assured. – L.H.
26. "Trashin’ the Camp," Tarzan
Phil Collins' joyful romp from Tarzan owes its visuals to "Under the Sea," with an array of animals playing instruments found in the jungle camp. You can't help but sing along when Rosie O'Donnell breaks out into all those "doo bop she doo"s. (And the version with *NSYNC is just as fun.) — D.W.
25. "Zero to Hero," Hercules
This sonic narration of Hercules’ rise to hero status soundtracks a pivotal point in the movie. With catchy and clever wordplay (“Who put the glad in gladiator?” the muses sing), and a tempo shift midway through, this song has plenty to offer. – L.H.
24. "One Jump Ahead," Aladdin
An impressively jaunty, enjoyably frisky ode to street-ratdom that had six-year-olds across the country asking their parents what the hell a “nom de plume” was. “I steal only what I can’t afford / That’s everything!” The stuff of Republican nightmares. – A.U.
23. "Strangers Like Me," Tarzan
Although this wasn’t the award-winning track from Phil Collins’ impressive Tarzan catalog (we’ll get to that soon enough), it has the same vigorous drums of the opening “Two Worlds” and bonafide jam “Son of Man,” combined with the heart and of the film’s most revered hit. The curious lyrics are in tune with the discoveries Tarzan makes as the song plays, making for an almost dreamlike experience, even just watching it in VHS quality. – T.W.
22. "True to Your Heart," Mulan
Stevie Wonder and 98 Degrees together in one song is a pretty promising combination, and they certainly lived up to the hype with this playful, harmonica-flavored boy band jam that closes out Mulan. — T.W.
21. "I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)," Hercules
There are plenty of clichéd love stories in the Disney filmography, and Hercules’ damsel Megara (“Meg” for short) certainly didn’t want to fall under the same spell as her predecessors. But as she hopelessly trots around the Grecian grounds soulfully belting out her little love ditty – accompanied by The Muses, who try telling her she’s in denial – she finally comes to a conclusion to which many a girl (or guy) can relate: “At least out loud, I won’t say I’m in love.” – T.W.
20. "Gaston," Beauty and the Beast
The title theme for Beauty and the Beast’s chest-puffed antagonist punctures male entitlement and satirizes bro absurdity with such acuity you’ll end up looking for Kathleen Hanna’s name in the writing credits. “When I was a lad I ate four dozen eggs/ Every morning to help me get large,” Gaston boasts in the song’s deal-sealing bridge. “Now that I'm grown I eat five dozen eggs/ So I'm roughly the size of a barge!” A couple centuries later, he’d be bragging about his new haircut and showering in Jagerbombs. – A.U.
19. "Reflection," Mulan
A lot of times when a Disney princess takes the screen for a solo, she’s singing about a male suitor, or one she longs for. But in Mulan’s case, her breakout spot was an expressive, insightful lyric that -- while a bit heartbreaking -- serves as a realization of what her next steps should be, even if her family won’t approve. It’s a monumental moment for the heroine, as it’s the first glimpse of what Fa Mulan really looks like underneath her required makeup. And after it received a pop makeover a la Christina Aguilera, the song became monumental for Mulan’s fans, too. – T.W.
18. "A Star is Born," Hercules
This infectious feel-good song about an outcast-turned-hero finally being embraced by his community -- as a star, no less -- serves as a perfect closing track to this mythologically inspired film. "I finally know where I belong,” Hercules tells his parents, as a lush orchestra begins to play and the ever-present muses have the gospel-infused final word. – L.H.
17. "Circle of Life," The Lion King
When you think of epic Disney openings, it really doesn’t get much more grand than this. Actually, forget that – Disney or not, there is no denying that “Circle of Life” is one of the most dynamic beginnings to any movie, period. As if the majestic images of the Pride Lands wildlife aren’t enough to get your adrenaline pumping, the bold drums and building chants combine for one of the most iconic scenes in Disney history. Even without the visuals, the roaring anthem is enough to bring you right back to Pride Rock, and that oh-so-unforgettable sunrise. – T.W.
16. "Belle," Beauty and the Beast
We're introduced to our heroine Belle in Beauty and the Beast in familiar-enough Disney Princess fashion, but once her lilting prologue wraps, all of a sudden we've entered a French operetta. The buoyant opening number (and title theme for the film's protagonist) expertly layers vocals from various villagers to create a complex musical and lyrical tapestry that wouldn't be out of place in Les Misérables -- you know, aside from the lack of death and despair in this little town. Belle might not be too thrilled with this "provincial life," but it doesn't look so bad from here. – T.W.
15. "Be Prepared," The Lion King
Scar’s plan for fascist domination didn’t end well, but don’t get it twisted — his anthem is the quintessential Disney villain song. Tim Rice and Elton John’s sinister, thunderous tune revs up Jeremy Irons’ baritone. And with just enough xylophone and hyena giggle (courtesy of Whoppi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings), “Be Prepared” roars as a towering, multi-faceted monstrosity. – CHRIS PAYNE
14. Friend Like Me, Aladdin
The Genie was easily one of Robin Williams’ best roles during his legendary career, bringing his kooky personality to life in an eccentric blue-bodied cartoon character. While his resume hadn’t included singing until Aladdin, Williams absolutely nailed “Friend Like Me” almost effortlessly -- as Menken confirmed during a recent visit to Billboard -- which resulted in a wildly fun, jazzy and extremely memorable number. – T.W.
13. "I Just Can’t Wait to Be King," The Lion King
Simba’s anthem of youthful invincibility translates to pop banger more convincingly than just about anything else on our list. Those jubilant, piping whistles, the rubbery bass line, the subtle guitar groove — this one got compared to Billy Joel’s “The River of Dreams” in its time, but in 2017 terms, Vampire Weekend writing for Top 40 radio suits it just fine. – C.P.
12. "You’ll Be in My Heart," Tarzan
While there is no denying that Menken, Rice and Zimmer had Disney songs on lock, Collins came in for the finale of the Renaissance and did the composers proud. Compositionally, “You’ll Be In My Heart” isn’t the biggest earworm, and it doesn’t have the most iconic hook. But what it does have is that pull at the heartstrings that all the Disney classics do, giving it the aww-inspiring musical and lyrical qualities that landed it both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for best original song in 1999. – T.W.
11. "Kiss the Girl," The Little Mermaid
In which Sebastian the Crab – who, with apologies to Robin Wililams’ Genie, you really never had a friend like – sets the mood for the title character’s contractually mandated kiss of true love with an addictive, calypso-tinged ballad that alternately lures and demeans her intended into action. No less a pop luminary than Brian Wilson covered it, and it was an inspired choice – “Kiss the Girl” echoed the confused, constantly battling sides of a young lover’s subconscious better than just about any song since “Good Vibrations.” – A.U.
10. "Go the Distance," Hercules
Similar to Mulan’s struggle in “Reflection,” Hercules has a moment of “I don’t belong” realization before heading on his self-discovery journey – which results in the movie’s most vibrant number. Despite its relatively short running time, the triumphant, trumpet-laced tune can serve as an anthem for anyone who needs a little motivation and feel like every mile is worth their while. – T.W.
9. "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," The Lion King
“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is rightly remembered as one of the great love songs of the Disney canon; with its towering chorus and climactic key change, the ballad earns its place as the soundtrack to a scene of greater animal intimacy than most pre-teens watching were prepared to process. But the song’s true brilliance, excised by the unavoidable Elton John version, is that originally, “Tonight” was bookended with laments from Simba’s buddy Timon, who understands that his friend’s new romantic union will undoubtedly weaken their own platonic bond. It gets at the sad truth a less-nuanced song wouldn’t have the guts to express: Every great young love story is also the story of one or multiple sideline casualties. – A.U.
8. "Part of Your World," The Little Mermaid
When you’re a mermaid, apparently you don’t get too far just flippin’ your fins. But when you’re singing a song fantasizing over living a life you can’t, it makes for a moment that everyone can relate to. And when the song has impeccable rhymes, backed by a dramatic violins, it becomes one that no one can resist singing along to. Besides, what other songs can successfully incorporate the word “thingamabobs” and make you want to integrate it into your personal vocabulary? – T.W.
7. "Beauty and the Beast," Beauty and the Beast
A romance between a massive, wolf-like creature and a dainty brunette villager is one that’s really only imagined in a Disney movie, but when it’s soundtracked by a whimsically beautiful song as old as rhyme, it becomes a tale as old as time. Enough with the lyric play – “Beauty and the Beast” was an instantly dazzling tune from the moment that flute kicked off the romantic ballad. No matter if it’s Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Potts, Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson, or Ariana Grande and John Legend narrating the classic ballroom scene, the combination of the piano, full orchestra and sweet narrative is one that every generation can swoon over. – T.W.
6. "Colors of the Wind," Pocahontas
Pocahontas and John Smith’s complicated love story reached a turning point in Pocahontas with the Native American princess’ wistful number “Colors of the Wind.” While Smith and his fellow settlers were on the hunt for land and riches, Pocahontas put her frustrating romance aside to whip up this artistic PSA to and instead respect nature and wildlife, embracing the diversity around you. – A.P.
5. "I’ll Make a Man Out of You," Mulan
After The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King dominated the Disney music scene for the first half of the Renaissance, Donny Osmond's kick-ass training song and Mulan's badass main character made for an unstoppable combination that landed it amongst the greats. If those watching weren’t convinced that Mulan wasn’t capable of being in the army when she set out, this scene provides all the proof necessary that she can keep up with her most masculine of militia mates. And with Osmond offering up intensely fierce vocals on lyrics like “With all the strength of a raging fire / Mysterious as the dark side of the moon" -- especially on the epic power-note finish -- Mulan (and anyone watching, for that matter) surely feels empowered enough to defeat the Huns. – T.W.
4. "Be Our Guest," Beauty and the Beast
A good Disney love song is tough to beat, but when a singing candelabra is involved, it’s hard to not put this fun dinnertime tune up against the greatest of romance records. Lumière’s charming French accent sets the scene for the stunning song, crafting a perfect set-up for the vibrant melody and brilliant verses that are the heart and soul of “Be Our Guest.” Relax, pull up a chair and be the guest of Beauty and the Beast’s most thrilling musical number. Can you really contest choreographed routines by a chorus of spoons, honey pots, plates and feather dusters? The answer is… absolutely not, especially when the finale involves champagne showers and a sparking (dancing spoon-lined) chandelier. – T.W.
3. "Hakuna Matata," The Lion King
Sure, When Harry Met Sally was a thing before The Lion King was, but there may be no better character introduction in recent film history than when Simba meets Timon and Pumba. As a young lion cub that finds himself completely lost in his own family’s kingdom, Simba needed some reassurance that everything was going to be okay. So, a meerkat and a warthog provide that guarantee, with perhaps the most relatable fake phrase ever created. If you first experienced the beloved movie moment as a kid, you probably didn’t notice the same jokes within the lyrics that you would as an adult ("He could clear the savannah after every meal" is likely more relatable as an elder...) – but perhaps that’s what makes this bouncy tune so lovable across all generations. Even after just one take, you’ll be singing this wonderful phrase all the way home, implementing the motto in your life anytime you need to tell yourself “no worries.” Oh, and that transformational log scene during the bridge? Yeah, there’s no way anyone is contesting “Hakuna Matata” as the best Lion King moment. – T.W.
2. "A Whole New World," Aladdin
The only song from the Disney Renaissance to top the Billboard Hot 100, “A Whole New World” goes for the gusto like few love ballads songs in history, having the distinct advantage of being able to offer a magic carpet ride that isn’t even metaphorical. “Don’t you dare close your eyes/ Hold your breath, it gets better,” Aladdin promises in aside, and the music backs him up, a sweeping, gorgeous, up-up-up arrangement of strings and harmonies that reaches the clouds and just keeps soaring. Like any number of Phil Spector songs did for young pop fans of the ‘60s, “A Whole New World” gave ‘90s babies impossibly high expectations for love’s (literal) otherworldliness -- but for then, we were happy just to fly along with Jasmine and Aladdin and dream of our own future journeys to that “wondrous place.” – A.U.
1. "Under the Sea," The Little Mermaid
This bubbly ditty sung by a spunky, red crustacean made underwater life the wave. While the aforementioned Aladdin duet is the G.O.A.T. of romantic Disney ballads, Sebastian’s epic ocean orchestra for The Little Mermaid flooded the ears of fin-less fans and warned that life by land is the ultimate snoozefest. Who’s to argue when the splashy performance not only scored an Oscar for best original song in 1990, but a pair of Grammys in '91, including best song written specifically for a motion picture or for television. “Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter,” assures Sebastian, whose underwater jam session has kept kids and kidults both swimming and dancing for decades. – A.P.