The Greatest Songs In Children’s Movies

This week, the five best songs from animated children’s movies.

Sean Johnson:

  1. Roger Miller’s “Not In Nottingham” in Disney’s Robin Hood: An education in mournful sadness not likely to be soon forgotten by most children who knew the movie—never to be forgotten by me. Miller’s no crooner, but a good folk song is a perfectly acceptable substitute for a great voice. In what may be an unprecedented move, I hereby invoke the right not to give a defense for copy/pasting from my own Undefended entry.
  2. “Somewhere Out There” in An American Tail: James Horner’s cosmological lyrics are delivered by mice children with cracking voices, but that’s what gets me every time. Add to that several readings of Dante in adult life, and every hearing of this ditty about love under the stars makes me into a less manly man.
  3. Walrus jazz in Samson and Sally (1984): I can trace my love of Jazz back to the ineffable enchantment of the walrus’ skat medley in this movie, featuring such eclectic instrumentation as a brass trombone, human skeletons, and drums of radioactive waste.
  4. “What’s This,” The Nightmare Before Christmas: The bewildering novelty of Christmas (even kitschy Christmas) seen through the eyes of the skeleton king, and Danny Elfman singing to his own music; can’t lose.
  5. Seal’s “Fly Like An Eagle,” Space Jam: Once you’ve successfully gotten Space Jam onto this list on a technicality, you are faced with the even more difficult task of deciding between R. Kelly’s “I Believe I can Fly,” a Busta Rhymes/Coolio/LL Cool J/Method Man collaboration, a Barry White/Chris Rock duet (“Basketball Jones”), and this soulful social-activism number from the ol’ rose-kisser himself. What can I say, I’m only human, but this track is just plain cool and, if memory serves, it plays both times MJ comes out of retirement and starts breaking’ ankles on the court—quite the soundtrack pedigree.

Rikki Elizabeth Stinnette:

  1. “Under the Sea,” in The Little Mermaid: I think the best animated film songs move the story forward while fitting the image on the screen. This is one of the best examples of this—the words are witty and match a gorgeous cascade of hand-drawn animation. Also, I think it secretly contributed to my enjoyment of reggae music.
  2. “A Whole New World” in Aladdin: Same as the above. It’s the only Disney movie song that I seriously enjoy playing over and over again. Both Aladdin’s and Jasmine’s vocals are on point.
  3. “Once Upon a December” in Anastasia: The music-box accompaniment to Liz Callaway’s beautiful voice gives this waltz a mysterious Russian feel. It’s absolutely perfect for the story—and it gives me goosebumps, even as an adult.
  4. “The Bear Necessities” in The Jungle Book: Classic Disney at its catchy finest.
  5. “Something There” in Beauty and the Beast: I included this for two reasons. First, I had to include something from my favorite animated musical. Second, though the song is not the greatest musically, I love how the words match the image and move the story forward. Belle’s and Adam’s thoughts, sung as voiceovers, show how the characters are growing to appreciate each as people instead of as their only ticket out of the castle.

Joshua Gibbs:

  1. “Part of Your World,” from The Little Mermaid: The fondest, most heartsick and naïve song in the Disney catalog, “Part of Your World” collapses a cornucopia of teenage sentiment into one spot, although the song never feels patronizing. When the song threatens to become too top heavy, “Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters…” centers it once again within the realm of pitiable ignorance, and nearly touches it with humor. “What’s a fire and why does it— what’s the word?— burn?” asks the young woman enflamed with lust and lust to know. Wide ranging, yet melodically and lyrically balanced.
  2. “Kiss The Girl,”/”Under the Sea,” from The Little Mermaid: These two Calypso-heavy songs bolster the mood of what would otherwise prove an untenably dark, depressing film, although it ought to be noted that both songs ultimately fail in what they aim to do. There is no kiss, and Ariel is discontent to stay under the sea. And yet, both songs embody the plucky, daffy, desperate attempts of one of the characters to keep some semblance of order to the plot, while simultaneously spinning off into kaleidoscopic catchiness.
  3. “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” from The Little Mermaid: Easily the darkest of Disney’s dark moments, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” also enjoys a perfect weight and perfect timing. Ursula is a fleshy old haunt who sings a tune from the Weimar Republic, and she demands genuine humanity in exchange for feigned humanity. A remarkable rendering of the Faustian bargain.
  4. “Somewhere Out There,” from An American Tail: I’m with Sean on this one, and I’ll take it served up by mice children or the incomparable Peabo Bryson and Linda Rondstadt. The song performs an amazing double duty in not only functioning as a homesick remembrance of family, but also expressing the romantic yearnings of the unwed and unloved. While the lyrics suggest a singer who is helplessly grounded and motionless, the melody (and performance by mouse child/Peabo) absolutely soars, which creates a thematic harmony that abides long after the final golden echo.
  5.  “No Cats in America,” from An American Tail: Obviously the joke was lost on me when I saw the film first time I saw it, but this big bar stomp is a sad optimistic riot of cynicism.

Christian Leithart:

  1. I Just Can’t Wait to be King – The Lion King: Ever since The Little Mermaid, Disney (and Broadway) musicals always contain an “I want” song, where the main character explains why his or her life as it stands just isn’t satisfactory. Very few musicals contain an “I want” song that’s so exuberant.
  2. Friend Like Me – Aladdin: Alan Menken’s music for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast is what comes to mind when most people think of Disney music. Aladdin also has its fair share of catchy, singable songs, the best known of which is A Whole New World. Close behind that song in terms of popularity is this insane visual and verbal bonanza, which may forever be associated with the late great Robin Williams.
  3. Dream to Dream – An American Tail: Fievel Goes West: The Fievel movies have appeared more than once on this list, and for good reason. James Horner did some amazing work, capturing longing, joy, hope, and dreams of a better life. While “Somewhere Out There” is quite a bit more famous, this unadorned tune sung by Tanya has always stuck in my mind.
  4. Deliver Us/Hush Now My Baby – The Prince of Egypt: This five-minute song takes sets the stage for the epic that will follow, as well as introducing all the major characters. On top of that, it’s a masterpiece of animation and editing.
  5. Aisling’s Song – The Secret of Kells: You may remember this movie for its beautiful animation, but nothing captures the ancient Irish atmosphere of the story like this short, haunting tune.

Nate Douglas:

  1. Bare Necessities – The Jungle Book: Disney will present some songs that contain some wisdom, but still require a counterpoint to ground them (Hakuna Matata, for one). The Bare Necessities is the best of these.
  2. Everybody Wants to Be A Cat – The Aristocats: Fun jazz is fun.
  3. Somewhere Out There – An American Tale: Poignant, longing, yet also hopeful, James Horner does much with little mouse voices straining to the high notes to the point you think they’re voices would crack.
  4. Beauty and the Best – Beauty and the Beast: Hard to pick a more beautiful song that also rings true (something Disney does do all the time, see Frozen).
  5. Why Should I Worry? – Oliver and Company: Because I will add Billy Joel to one of these lists at every opportunity.
Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

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