Every musical Disney film has one – that song where the lead gets up and tells the audience what they want. It’s usually one of the first songs, and arguably the most important song in the show, because everything the character does after this will be based on this established motivation. Here are my top eleven Disney “I Want” songs.
11. "Go the Distance" (Hercules)
Hercules is a film I can see the Disney Theatrical Group bringing to the stage someday. Its songs feel like they’re meant to be sung out over an audience instead of in movie close-ups, and “Go the Distance” is no exception. But while it’s gorgeous, its lyrics are so nonspecific that that this song doesn’t really tell you who is singing it, just that he wants to “feel like I belong,” so I don’t think it fulfills its purpose as well as other songs on this list.
10. "Jack’s Lament" (The Nightmare Before Christmas)
To contrast, there is absolutely no doubt who is singing this song – “I – Jack! The Pumpkin King!” See, these are the kind of picky details I have to go for to put one gorgeous song over another. This song is an exposition dump; by the end of it, you really know Jack and end up somehow sympathizing with his frankly unrelatable desires. I mean, come on. His problem is that he’s bored with being famous.
9. "Reflection" (Mulan)
Unlike Jack, Mulan takes a scenario a lot of her audience likely hasn’t experienced and translates it into terms that anyone can relate to: the idea that who you are on the outside and who you are on the inside don’t match up. “Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” I hate to put this beautiful melody so far down on the list, but there are just so many good “I Want” songs…
8. "Just Around the River Bend" (Pocahontas)
Pocahontas’s “I Want” song is interesting because she doesn’t actually know what she wants. Or maybe she wants that uncertainty, to sacrifice security in the name of discovering “what’s around the river bend.” What I really love about this song is how even without the video or water sound effects, you can feel her rushing down the river.
7. "Out There" (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
In another movie definitelymeant for the stage (and it was off-Broadway for a brief time), the hero’s “I Want” song is mixed with a brief Villain song. Nearly a third of “Out There” is Frollo telling Quasimodo why he shouldn’t leave Notre Dame – and the rest of it is Quasimodo’s rebuttal to the audience, explaining why he wants “one day out there.” The second part is all the more powerful for the inclusion of the first; we know not only what Quasimodo wants, but the social and psychological barriers he’ll spend the film confronting.
6. "I Just Can’t Wait to be King" (The Lion King)
Not all “I Want” songs are sweeping ballads. Simba’s is catchy. I apologize in advance for the earworm, but it’s just so much fun! “Let every creature go for broke and sing” along! (Also, this song sets up a desire that Simba will later outright reject, giving his character arc complexity. We can't help but compare "Hakuna Matata" Simba to "Just Can't Wait to be King" Simba!)
5. "Almost There" (The Princess and the Frog)
Speaking of catchy, just like every other part of this movie, “Almost There” is jazzy fun. Tiana knows exactly what she wants and how to get it, which sets her apart from a lot of Disney protagonists and makes this song stand out. “So I work real hard each and every day, now things for sure are going my way!” What a great role model!
4. "When Will My Life Begin" (Tangled)
This song plays a really cool trick on the listener. It doesn’t sound like an “I Want” song at first; it’s just Rapunzel listing off the things she does in a day. But then she drops the title onto the list – “and basically, just wonder when will my life begin” – and you realize that for all her activities, she’s aware that she isn’t really living. After that she provides a more concrete desire, to go see the lanterns, and the bigger “life” theme is ostensibly dropped. Except it isn’t dropped. That’s what the journey out of the tower to see the lanterns represents. And because the connection is set up here, it will stick with the viewer throughout the film.
3. "How Far I’ll Go" (Moana)
Maybe I’m a sucker for new stuff. Maybe there’s an art to expressing pure longing through music. Maybe this song feels a lot like “Just Around the Riverbend” but more obviously conflicted. Maybe I’m partial to altos. Who knows? This song just "seems like it’s calling out to me”!
2. "For the First Time In Forever" (Frozen)
I love this song from a pure aesthetic standpoint in addition to a content one. It’s two conflicting “I Want” songs in one. Anna wants this day to be full of life-changing moments. Elsa wants it to be uneventful and end quickly. It gets to the point where they’re saying the same thing but meaning two completely different things: “It’s only for today, it’s agony to wait” – and it’s really clever.
1. "Part of Your World" (The Little Mermaid)
See, I’m not completely a sucker for new stuff. This song has been one of my favorites on the Disney mixtape since childhood. It makes me laugh. It makes me sigh. It’s beautiful. And it establishes that Ariel doesn’t give up her voice only for a guy. She already wanted to be “part of that world.” The prince was a bonus.
What do you think? Did I forget your favorite "I Want" song? Leave a comment with which Disney "I Want" song you think is number one and why!