With its Academy Award nomination for Best Song, Moana is now the 20th Disney animated movie to receive such recognition.  For the occasion, I am offering my own choices for the best animated Disney scores.

For the sake of relative brevity, I have limited this list to films that have at least four original songs.  (While this excludes Oscar nominees Saludos Amigos and The Emperor’s New Groove, the most regrettable losses are The Three Caballeros, Lilo & Stitch, and The Great Mouse Detective.)  Furthermore, I am taking the Siskel & Ebert approach and providing observations about certain entries rather than covering all of them.

1. Beauty and the Beast
What more can be said about the score that helped Beauty and the Beast become the first animated Best Picture nominee and launched Disney’s Broadway enterprise?  Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s songs are simply magnificent.  The one quibble I’ve ever had is perhaps the lyrics are too sophisticated for provincial villagers (like when one woman thinks the Beast is “set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite” in “The Mob Song”).  Still, if not for Mary Poppins, I would not hesitate to call this the best score in any animated or live-action Disney movie.
My favorite song: “Belle”

2. The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid is a remarkably fleet-footed movie, and the score is an extension of that.  Only one scene and song in the whole film (the “Les Poissons” number) can be argued as being arbitrary.  Everything else is shaved down to the essentials without ever feeling rushed or underdone.  One interesting side effect is how the score has two false starts.  We get a short sea shanty (“Fathoms Below”) and an interrupted concert performance (“Daughters of Triton”) before we arrive at the big production numbers.  It suggests the creators were aware this was Disney Animation’s first large-scale musical since The Jungle Book and they wanted to build up how much of an event this movie was.
My favorite song: “Under the Sea”

3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
This movie is one rare occasion in the Disney canon where the creators aimed for creating a great musical instead of just a great Disney musical.  In no other film could Disney reach the spiritual power of songs like “God Help the Outcasts”, “Heaven’s Light”, and “Hellfire” in addition to the musical theatre splendor of numbers like “The Bells of Notre Dame” and “Out There”.
My favorite song: It changes every time.  Today, it's "Out There".

4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
For my money, this is one of the most romantic scores ever written for a Hollywood musical.  It’s near impossible not to get swept up in the playful grandeur of songs like “I’m Wishing”, “One Song”, and “Someday My Prince Will Come”.

5. Dumbo
Dumbo has more emotional potency in 64 minutes than most live-action movies have in two hours.  A significant part of this comes from the music.  The songs hit precisely the right emotional beats, accentuating each moment of humor (“When I See an Elephant Fly”), intensity (“Pink Elephants on Parade”), and love (“Baby Mine”).
My favorite song: “Baby Mine”

6. Aladdin
When you split the Aladdin score between the Howard Ashman songs and the Tim Rice songs, they feel both opposing and compatible.  While Rice tries to match Ashman’s wordplay, he does not aim for the same sense of time and location.  “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” could only happen in an Arabian Nights sort of setting like this, but the lyrics in “A Whole New World” are nondescriptly romantic enough that it would not take much effort to make the song work for another fantasy story.  And yet, because the most verbal songs come from the Genie and the more emotional songs come from Aladdin, the divergence works in the story’s favor.
My favorite song: “Friend Like Me”

7. The Princess and the Frog
The proverbial gumbo the creators set out to make this movie is best expressed through the score.  So many different styles of music mesh together into a lively whole, from jazz (street jazz in “When We’re Human” and upscale jazz in “Almost There”) to African rhythms (“Friends on the Other Side”) to zydeco (“Gonna Take You There”) and gospel (“Dig a Little Deeper”).

8. The Jungle Book
My favorite song: “I Wanna Be Like You”

9. Bambi
My favorite song: “Little April Shower”

10. Pinocchio

11. Lady and the Tramp
My favorite song: “Bella Notte”

12. Pocahontas

13. Cinderella
There is hardly a more delightful phrase in any Disney song than when the Fairy Godmother claims Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo is “the thingamabob that does the job.”
My favorite song: “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”

14. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
I’ve talked about “The Headless Horseman” before, but I still believe such tremendous villain songs as “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Friends on the Other Side” are indebted to this song’s alternating moods of jubilation & dread and the imposing theatricality of its staging.
My favorite song: “The Headless Horseman”

15. Moana
My favorite song: “You’re Welcome”

16. The Lion King
My favorite song: “Be Prepared”

17. Tarzan
My favorite song: “Strangers Like Me”

18. Sleeping Beauty
My favorite song: “Once Upon a Dream”

19. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
My favorite song: “Winnie the Pooh”

20. The Sword in the Stone
With its reliance on gags over story, The Sword in the Stone is clearly the animated film that had the least amount of Walt Disney’s attention.  The songs by Richard and Robert Sherman are where the film tries its hardest to focus on the core aspect of Merlin educating Wart.  Songs like “That’s What Makes the World Go Round” and “A Most Befuddling Thing” are where you feel Merlin is imparting knowledge that will help Wart when he becomes King Arthur.
My favorite song: “Higitus Figitus”

21. Hercules

22. The Aristocats
While these songs are enjoyable, they are indicative of how Disney moved away from relying on music as a storytelling device after Walt Disney’s death.  Only “Thomas O’Malley Cat”, the introduction for the male lead, really does anything to establish character or keep the story moving.  For an enlightening comparison, pick up the Aristocats album in Walt Disney Records’ Legacy Collection.  The deleted songs by Richard and Robert Sherman suggest a version of this movie where music plays a more constructive role.
My favorite song: “Thomas O’Malley Cat”

23. Peter Pan

24. The Rescuers

25. Alice in Wonderland
Without counting reprises, Alice in Wonderland has 14 songs, the most of any Disney animated film.  Most of them are only seconds long.

26. Winnie the Pooh
My favorite song: “The Backson Song”

27. Tangled
My favorite song: “I’ve Got a Dream”

28. Mulan

29. Frozen

30. Home on the Range

31. Robin Hood

32. Melody Time

33. Oliver & Company
My favorite song: “Why Should I Worry?”

34. Make Mine Music

35. The Fox and the Hound
My favorite song: “Best of Friends”

36. Brother Bear
My favorite song: “Great Spirits”

37. Fun and Fancy Free
Of all the films on this list, Fun and Fancy Free is the one where the songs feel the most like padding and/or window dressing.

I apologize for the barrenness of this second half, but sorting the mediocre scores was hard enough.

The Fantasia image is from


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