In every musical, usually in the first act, the protagonist will belt out a song that propels his or her motivations throughout the rest of the show. This is known as the “I Want” song — once summed up by legendary songwriter Howard Ashman, who helped revitalize Disney with The Little Mermaid in the late 1980s, as when “the leading lady sits downs on something [onstage] and sings about what she wants in life.” This is essential, he said, because afterward, “the audience falls in love with her and then roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.”
No film studio has perfected the “I Want” song quite like Walt Disney Animation Studios. The music of Ashman and his writing partner, Alan Menken, largely contributed to the critical and commercial success of The Little Mermaid, a film often celebrated for ushering in the Disney Renaissance. But Disney princesses have been belting out “I Want” songs since Walt Disney’s first animated feature, 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, when a lonely princess sang a little song (“I’m Wishing”) beside a wishing well.
It’s a tradition that continues in Moana, the studio’s latest animated tale of a Polynesian chief’s restless daughter who embarks on a journey of self-discovery across the ocean. A little more than 20 minutes into the film, Moana looks out upon the crashing waves and sings “How Far I’ll Go,” an inspiring tune penned by Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda (yes, the genius behind Hamilton).
So where does “How Far I’ll Go” rank among the songs that came before it? In order to find out, I took on the Herculean task of ranking Disney Animation Studios’ most memorable “I Want” songs, from worst to best.
“I’m Wishing” — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White’s pretty opening number, “I’m Wishing,” is sweet, simple, and to the point: She wants a handsome prince to love her and shower her with compliments. (Don’t we all?) Snow White deserves a lot of credit for launching feature-length Disney animation (and the Disney Princess™ empire), but this song offers little insight into Snow White’s motivations, other than that she wants to be loved. Her “I Want” sequence is also ultimately hijacked by the prince, which is so not OK.
“I Wonder” — Sleeping Beauty
I love Sleeping Beauty. I truly do. Lush scenery, a breathtaking climax with an unparalleled action sequence, and a visually striking princess make it one of the studio’s most beautiful films. That said, Aurora’s song, “I Wonder,” doesn’t have the same punch as the others — not to mention that it’s often forgotten, since “Once Upon a Dream” is more celebrated. Still, “I Wonder” is pure and heartfelt, and similar to the princesses that came before her, Aurora just wants somebody to love.
“A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” — Cinderella
Cinderella’s song has something the previous two lack: hope. Whereas Aurora and Snow White long to be loved, “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” is a sanguine tune about willing your dreams to come true. It’s not a matter of if but when. Sure, Cinderella’s song doesn’t specifically say what she wants, but it’s obvious: She wants to get the hell away from her wicked stepmother and bratty stepsisters.
“For the First Time in Forever” — Frozen
The first of two Frozen entries, “For the First Time in Forever” depicts Anna’s desire to finally escape her childhood isolation. The song is animated and wordy, and perhaps the biggest difference between this and the bottom three is that Anna’s wants are clearly defined. In fact, she’s pretty blunt about it: “For the first time in forever, there’ll be magic, there’ll be fun / For the first time in forever, I could be noticed by someone.” It’s fun, but it definitely doesn’t reach the heights of that other Frozen song.
“I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” — The Lion King
Perhaps the most literal entry here, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is also the one that proves you don’t have to be a Disney princess to have an “I Want” song. It may not be as ~deep~ as some of the other songs on this list (as Simba’s kind of a spoiled brat who wants to exploit the luxuries of the monarchy), but it’s certainly one of the more memorable. And did I mention it’s really fun to sing?
“Just Around the Riverbend” — Pocahontas
Pocahontas is a problematic fave, but as far as “I Want” songs go, “Just Around the Riverbend” is solid. Both adventurous and sincere, it manages to reveal multiple facets of Pocahontas’s personality. She’s uncertain about which path her life will take, which is as relatable as it can get for a Disney feature. Of course, “Just Around the Riverbend” just isn’t as musically compelling as some of the other songs on this list.
“Let It Go” — Frozen
Maybe this song deserves to rank higher based on the sheer ubiquity of it, but you know what? I don’t really care. No one’s denying that “Let It Go” is a great song. (Remember the very first time you heard it, not the 500th.) And more importantly, it’s a powerful song — and uniquely feminine, as Elsa learns to not give a damn about what people think of her or her icy abilities. But it’s not a traditional “I Want” song in the sense that it’s hard to pin down what Elsa really wants here. She wants to be left alone, sure, but “Let It Go” is more of a statement than a plea.
“When Will My Life Begin?” — Tangled
Mandy Moore’s sugary-sweet “When Will My Life Begin?” doesn’t get the love it deserves. Similar to the princesses of yore, Rapunzel lives a life of isolation, but she doesn’t sit around wondering, When will my prince arrive to save me from my miserable life? She keeps busy with simple pleasures, like baking, painting, candle-making, and brushing her hair. “When Will My Life Begin?” tells us everything we need to know about the minutiae of her everyday life and her longing for something more. The song also does a stellar job of setting up the film’s quirky tone.
“How Far I’ll Go” — Moana
Like Pocahontas, Moana is being pulled in two directions: who she wants to be and who her father wants her to be. And like the great Disney heroines who came before her, she follows her heart, and it ultimately leads her on a great adventure. (But first! A song.) This “I Want” song hits all of the right criteria and Miranda is an indelible wordsmith, but its greatest asset is 16-year-old Auli’i Cravalho, who recorded this song when she was 14. There’s something refreshing about hearing an actual teen sing a Disney tune — she’s not as polished as Broadway vets Idina Menzel, Lea Salonga, and Paige O’Hara, but that’s all part of her charm. A good “I Want” song should also have a sweeping, emotional reprise — and “How Far I’ll Go” has not one but two.
“Go the Distance” — Hercules
Hercules is feeling every type of way on “Go the Distance,” and that’s just one of the reasons it’s so high on my list. The other? Its themes are universal. Hercules isn’t just wishing for a brighter tomorrow; he’s having an existential crisis about his place in the world. But with a little hard work, he knows he can become the man he was meant to be. Who hasn’t felt lost and aimless at some point or suffered a blow to the ego? “Go the Distance” isn’t just uplifting; it’s aspirational.
“Almost There” — The Princess and the Frog
The Princess and the Frog is the most underrated Disney movie of all time (don’t @ me). It’s reminiscent of the films of the Disney Renaissance — classic fairy tales with a twist. “Almost There” sets itself apart from the other songs on this list with its upbeat, jazzy tone. Tiana is an i-n-d-e-p-e-n-d-e-n-t woman who doesn’t need a man to make her dreams come true. She can do that on her own. “Almost There” is her celebratory declaration of independence, as she lays out plans to open her own restaurant. We’ve come a long way from whistling down a wishing well.
“Reflection” — Mulan
More so than any other song on this list, “Reflection” is a rallying cry for anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable in their own skin. It’s a powerful song, maybe the studio’s most powerful, and it captures Mulan at her most vulnerable. She’s in the middle of an identity crisis, and yet I almost wish there was more personality on display. We know what Mulan wants, but we don’t know much else about her here, other than that she’s sad.
“Belle” — Beauty and the Beast
“Belle” is a seven-minute opening number so ambitious, Ashman was convinced it was going to get him and Menken fired from the project. It brilliantly establishes the “provincial life” Belle is trying to escape, but her true “I Want” moment comes during the song’s reprise, after Gaston’s boorish marriage proposal. She wants adventure! She wants to see the world! And she wants someone who can understand that.
“Part of Your World” — The Little Mermaid
There’s no question that Ashman and Menken’s “Part of Your World” is Disney’s greatest “I Want” song. (There would would be no “Let It Go” without it.) It’s the modern OG that does everything a proper “I Want” song should do: It gives Ariel a purpose, reveals her deepest desire — to be where the people are — and shows us a glimpse of her strengths, vulnerabilities, and individual quirks. Simply put, it’s perfect.
Surprisingly, “Part of Your World” was nearly cut from the film entirely. After an early test screening of the unfinished film rendered schoolchildren restless during Ariel’s big moment, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the then-head of Disney’s motion-picture division, told directors Ron Clements and John Musker to cut the iconic scene. Animator Glen Keane eventually convinced Katzenberg that the song was imperative to the film’s emotional crux, and the rest, well, is history.