In musical theater an “I Want” song is an early moment in the show when the protagonist gets to express his or her inner desires through music.
And since Disney animated films are basically Broadway musicals in disguise, they often feature “I Want" songs too. Given that I'm fond of making lists, I set about ranking all of the character-revealing ballads in the Disney canon.
- “I’m Wishing”/“Someday My Prince Will Come” Snow White
Snow White deserves a lot of credit for launching both feature-length Disney animation and the Disney princess genre, but I’m not quite sure the film needed two songs about Snow White's desire to sit around and wait for a prince. Snow’s shrill voice coupled with the songs’ uber-regressive messages landed them at the bottom of my list. Still, it's really sweet that the dwarves get so invested in her dreams.
- “Once Upon A Dream” Sleeping Beauty
This one doubles as a love duet between Princess Aurora (who thinks she’s a peasant named Briar Rose) and Prince Philip, but as with Snow White it only gives its heroine the slimmest of motivations. That said, the animated sequence is a whole lot of fun, and I've always felt Philip was the most attractive Disney prince so it's not all bad.
- “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes” Cinderella
This song rounds out the trio of classic princess films. Cinderella has far more pluck than the previous two heroines, but "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes" features too many platitudes to fully land. “No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dreams that you wish will come true.” What does that even mean?
- “For The First Time In Forever” Frozen
Frozen was famously the first Disney film to feature two princesses, which means it also features two “I Want” songs. Anna’s dreams of finally escaping her childhood isolation (and maybe falling in love) are sweet, but slightly forgettable.
- “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” The Lion King
This fun song only landed so low on my list because it’s exploring the emotions of an elementary school kid. Simba’s dreams of exploiting the luxuries and freedom of the monarchy change dramatically over the course of the film, and while this song does a good job establishing him at his most immature, it's just not as thematically rich as some other "I Want" songs.
- “Strangers Like Me” Tarzan
This is the only song on the list not sung by the protagonist, but Phil Collins’ vocals essentially act as Tarzan’s inner monologue as he gets to know fellow humans for the first time. The moment when Tarzan shows Jane his jungle world to thank her for explaining her culture is both heartwarming and super sexy.
- “When Will My Life Begin” Tangled
“When Will My Life Begin” kicks off the main story of Tangled and quickly establishes the film’s comic tone. Rapunzel is way weirder than the princesses who came before her, and this song lays out everything we need to know about both her boring life and her dreams for something more. Unfortunately it ends with a total thud that isn’t resolved musically until the song’s reprise much later in the film. A good “I Want” song should satisfy in both its original form and its reprise (like some of the songs higher on this list) and “When Will My Life Begin” isn’t quite there.
- “Reflection” Mulan
While it's undoubtedly a fantastic song, my problem with “Reflection” is that it only captures Mulan at her most vulnerable and moody. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad we get to explore Mulan’s fears, but taken out of context it doesn’t really encapsulate all the facets of her personality the way some of these other songs do. I wish it had somehow been able to hint at Mulan's strength, bravery, and generally awkwardness in addition to her identity crisis.
- “Just Around The Riverbend” Pocahontas
This song finds the balance that “Reflection” struggles with. It captures Pocahontas at her most adventurous before slowing down to explore her insecurities about what path her life will take. It’s not the most musically compelling (“Colors Of The Wind” is definitely the better song in the film), but it’s a strong piece of character work.
- “I Can Go The Distance” Hercules
Like “Just Around The Riverbend” this song captures a whole range of emotions in Hercules. And unlike some of the other songs on this list, there’s a great specificity to the lyrics. Hercules isn’t just wishing for a better future, he’s singing about his personal identity issues and then moving forward with a plan to resolve them.
- “Let It Go” Frozen
I almost put this song lower on my list just because I'm so sick of hearing it, but I have to admit it’s a pretty great “I Want” song. While the lyrics are a little generic, the swelling music and the power of Idina Menzel’s voice really sell the emotion behind Elsa’s moment of self-discovery. Plus the sass of “The cold never bothered me anyway” wins me over every time.
- “Belle (Reprise)” Beauty and the Beast
The song “Belle” establishes the provincial life from which Belle is rebelling and gives the audience a glimpse at her desire for something more. But it's not until the much shorter reprise that the character really comes into her own. Fuming at the boorish Gaston’s marriage proposal, Belle unleashes her emotions on a windswept field, and it’s truly a thing of beauty (and the beast).
- “Almost There” The Princess and the Frog
A lot of "I Want" songs tend toward the melodramatic, but “Almost There” is an upbeat, jazzy celebration of female independence. Unlike the lovelorn princesses at the bottom of this list, Tiana isn’t sitting around waiting for a prince (“That’s just gonna have to wait a while”). Instead she’s laying out plans to open her own restaurant. The fact that by the film’s end she’s both a princess and a business owner is just another reason to revisit this overlooked gem.
- “Out There” The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
Quasimodo's ballad may secretly be the most emotionally devastating song Disney has ever written. Having spent his entire life with an emotionally abusive father figure who convinces him he’s a monster, Quasi climbs to the top of his bell tower and pours out his deepest desire: to spend just one day amongst the people of the real world. As the song climaxes he explains, “Just one day and then I swear I'll be content with my share. Won’t resent, won't despair, old and bent, I won't care, I’ll have spent one day out there.” Though it’s softened by the lush melody, Quasi’s desperation for just one day of happiness is almost unbearably bleak.
- “Part Of Your World” The Little Mermaid
There’s no question that “Part Of Your World” is the best “I Want” song in the Disney canon, and potentially one of the best in musical theater as a whole. The Little Mermaid is a love story, but this song wisely gives Ariel a motivation that isn’t romance related: She wants to experience the human world. Like Tiana, she just happens to end up with a prince in the process of achieving her larger dream. “Part Of Your World” lets us see both the strength and vulnerability of Ariel while establishing her quirky personality. Really the only thing that gives it a run for its money is the “Part Of Your World (Reprise),” which adds just a bit more oomph to the song’s final line.