The Disney “I Want” song is a popular type of song that sees its main character sing about their wants for a better life than the one they have now and/or search for what they’ve been looking for their whole lives. And it’s not out of selfishness or something petty. It’s an essential piece of music that encapsulates the protagonist’s desire to overcome their struggles and define the motivations that help understand the character and propel them forward in the story. With Disney celebrating their 100th anniversary, we are looking at some of our favorite “I Want” songs.
Although the “I Want” song isn’t exclusive to the Disney Animated Musical, these songs are instrumental in building a connection between the audience and the character so that we can better understand their backstory and sympathize with the struggles they currently face. Throughout the years, the “I Want” song has evolved into something that was beautiful an uncomplicated and into something nuanced, sophisticated, and a reflection of the world that we live in today. And so, to celebrate Walt Disney Studio’s centennial anniversary, here are our ten favorite “I Want” songs.
10. “Belle” — Beauty and the Beast
Belle wants more than her provincial life. And Paige O’Hara‘s beautifully encapsulates wanting more than what her little town and quiet village can offer through the title song. She knows that somewhere out there to this life than the same loaves of bread, limited books, in the small French village where everyone seems to know everyone. They all see Belle as a girl whose nose is stuck in a book who doesn’t fit in. Of course, most of the Disney animated musicals celebrate their protagonists as underdogs and characters who subvert any traditional norms established by the society in which they live. They all reject her simply for being different, as heard in the title song. “Look there she goes/ The girl is strange but special/ A most peculiar mademoiselle!/It’s a pity and a sin/ She doesn’t quite fit in/ ‘Cause she really is a funny girl/ A beauty but a funny girl She really is a funny girl/ That Belle!” But Belle refuses to conform and desires for something more than the life that she knows now. As she sings in the reprise, we discover how much more she wants than the provincial life can offer. “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere/ I want it more than I can tell!/ And for once it might be grand/ To have someone understand I want so much more than they’ve got planned…”
9. “Go The Distance” — Hercules
Hercules is among the strongest heroes, but he doesn’t have the easiest time fitting in. And the title characters’ “Go the Distance” is an “I Want” song, sung by Roger Bart, that center on his search for where he feels he can belong. Abducted as a baby and living amongst mortals, the existential song sees the orphan rejected by others who deem him a freak. Even peers his age have dubbed him Jerkules. But that’s not because the title hero is unlikable or has an awful personality, but because his overwhelming strength makes him more of an outcast. While that same strength can be a viable asset to his community, it is also the source of great destruction, as his clumsiness causes great pillars to collapse and fall. Hercules knows he can help and was meant for so much more. As such, he sings the song of finding that place where he can call home and be accepted for who he is. “I have often dreamed of a far off place/ Where a hero’s welcome would be waiting for me/ Where the crowds would cheer, when they see my face/ And a voice keeps saying this is where I’m meant to be.”
8. “A Place Called Slaughter Race” — Ralph Breaks the Internet
If anyone knows how to write an “I Want” song and show their range, it’s Alan Menkin. Though he’s written some of our favorites throughout his Disney career Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s “A Place Called Slaughter Race” is a surprisingly catchy song that’s hilariously meta and embraces the chaotic nature of the titular game while spotlighting Vanellope von Schweetz’s (Sarah Silverman) desire to a place that she can call home. With some encouragement from the other Disney princesses of the past, Vanellope sings the song of what she wants and has been longing for, all the while prancing a city full of dumpster fires, looting, creepy clowns, and great white sharks that pop out of sewer holes. Did I mention the dogs and cats he’s eaten also have a part to sing? All of that is even in the lyrics: “Fallen wires/ dumpster fires/ creepy clowns/ burning tires/ That great white in the sewer.” It may be chaotic, but ultimately, it works because it’s a song that matches Vanellope’s sharpness and adorable charm.
7. “One Jump Ahead” — Aladdin
Sung by Brad Kane, Aladdin’s “One Jump Ahead” is an “I Want” song that serves a dual purpose. “One jump ahead of the breadline/ One swing ahead of the sword/ I steal only what I can’t afford/ And that’s everything!” has him singing of his daily struggles trying to survive living as a “street rat.” Though he’s charming, handsome, and uses a slight of hand to swipe food and other essentials, its clear that shopkeepers, Agrabah’s Palace guards, and even sex workers don’t think highly of our titular character. “Riffraff! Street rat! Scoundrel!/Take that!” and “Stop, thief! Vandal! Outrage! Scandal!” are just some of the insults hurled his way. The song also gives us a sense of the size and scope of Agrabah itself as he traverses through the kingdom, scaling walls, swings from building to building.
While the song provides the necessary exposition needed to understand his backstory and sympathize with his motivations for survival, Aladdin’s reprise is where it hits hardest as all he’s ever wanted is for people to see him for who he is and not what he is perceived to be. “Riff-raff, street rat/ I don’t buy that/ If only they’d look closer/ Would they see a poor boy?/ No siree They’d find out there’s so much more to me.”
6. “Reflection” – Mulan
No song lyrically expresses the struggle of being true to oneself while honoring your family than Mulan‘s “Reflection.” In the film, Mulan defies gender identity norms and disguises herself as a man to join the army in her father’s place. Sung by Lea Salonga, Reflection contains lyrics that reflect that internal struggle while also spotlighting a desire to want more than what society expects of her.
“Somehow I cannot hide /Who I am, though I’ve tried./ When will my reflection show who I am inside?” The song itself has since become an LGBTQ+ anthem for those struggling with being true to themselves while living in a society that expects them to conform to traditional gender roles.
5. “Almost There” — The Princess and the Frog
Life in the Big Easy is more challenging for some than for others. In Princess and the Frog, Tiana’s (Anika Noni Rose) “I Want” song isn’t as conventional as its predecessors. “Almost There” is defined by her determination to make her dreams come true and her absolute refusal to let anything slow her down. “This old town can slow you down/ Taking the Easy Way” gives us an idea of some of the privileges some are granted and others have no choice but to keep grinding to achieve their dreams of not just a better life but something that she shared with her late father. And Tiana’s entrepreneurship gives her a clear vision of what she needs to do to achieve that dream. So while he mother is concerned that she is working too hard, our protagonist assures her that it will work itself out. “But I Know Exactly Where I Am Going/ I’m Getting Closer and Closer Everyday.”
As she sings, an old decaying sugar mill becomes a luxurious art deco-style restaurant inspired by a piece of art from a menu her father got. “Trials and Tribulations/ I’ve Had My Share/ There Ain’t Nothing That Will Stop Me Now/ Because I’m Almost There. “ But the one part of the song that shows how much the “I Want” song has evolved since its inception is how Tiana sings about what her father told her about fairytales. “I Remember Daddy Told Me/ Fairytales Can Come True/ You Gotta Make It Happen/ It All Depends On You.” It’s a jazzy-inspired song by Randy Newman that fits the film’s New Orleans setting and meta approach to the fairytale formula.
4. “How Far I’ll Go” — Moana
One of the more contemporary pieces of music to come out of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ CG era, Moana‘s “I Want” song revolves around wanting more than the life she currently knows. Surrounded by nothing but water, Moana’s (Auli’i Cravalho) small island she calls home isn’t enough to satisfy the explorer inside her. “I’ve Been Staring at the Edge of the Water/ For As Long As I Can Remember/ Never Really Knowing Why.”
The island is a diatomic place. Moana feels trapped, but it is also a place she calls home. Moreover, she is royalty and has duties and responsibilities to her people. And she struggles to try to live up to her father’s expectations while also becoming her own person. “I wish I could be the perfect daughter/ But I come back to the water/ No matter how hard I try.” That inner conflict surfaces with the lyrics that give us an idea of her motivations while also giving us a tour of the island that she lives on. “Every turn I take/ Every trail I track/ Every path I make/ Every road leads back/ To the place I know where I cannot go. Where I long to be.”
Considering she is a budding explorer, she dreams of finding what lies beyond that horizon. And with many content with their lives, even though the land is slowly dying, the answers as to what could restore it is out there, and she is willing to find it. “See the line where the sky meets the sea?/ It calls me/ And no one knows/ How far it goes/ If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me/ One day I’ll know/ If I go, there’s just no telling how far I’ll go.
3. “When You Wish Upon a Star” — Pinocchio
Though it wasn’t immediate, Pinocchio‘s “When You Wish Upon A Star” is one of the most iconic “I Want” songs in the Disney Animated Music library. Its legacy has lived on through numerous compositions, covers, and different iterations. And despite those changes, the song has been instilled into the studio’s fabric as it serves as the opening for almost every Disney feature for the past 40 years. The original, sung by Cliff Edwards, who also voiced Jimmy Cricket, has been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by The Library Of Congress. So, it stands to reason that it deserves a spot within our top ten.
While the basis of the song is relatively simple, it helped set the standard for the I Want Song that we all know and sing today. It’s a reminder that “When you wish upon a star/Makes no difference who you are/Anything your heart desires/Will come to you.” Of course, nowadays, the idea of making a wish and wanting something more is simple, and the songs and themes have since evolved into something more nuanced. The bigger the wish, the harder the struggle to achieve it. And what’s so beautiful about “When You Wish Upon A Star” isn’t so much its simplicity but its ability to remind us what happens when you hope, believe in the possible, and connect with the magic in the sky to make your dreams come true.
2. “Waiting on a Miracle” — Encanto
Encanto follows a multigenerational Colombian family, the Madrigals, led by a matriarch whose children and grandchildren receive magical gifts from a miracle, which they use to help the people in their rural community. Unfortunately, Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is the only ordinary person in the family. So, while the Madrigals can celebrate a grandchild’s newfound powers, Mirabel feels more like an outsider and starts to believe she has nothing to offer the family or community. Although she holds no animosity towards those for having their magical gifts, she yearns for the day when she can feel included and no longer ostracized by the Madrigal’s matriarch. She tells herself not to be upset or mad at all. And that she will stand by their side as they shine. And even though she sings that she’s fine, deep down, she knows she’s not.
So Mirabel sings “Waiting on a Miracle,” which lyrically expresses the anxieties of feeling left out within her own famly because she doesn’t have the magic that she was promised. So the song recognizes that she may not be able to move mountains or make flowers bloom like her sister; she can’t heal what’s broken like her mother. She can’t even control the morning rain or a hurricane. As such, she can’t keep down that pain of feeling excluded. So all she can do is be “waiting on a miracle.” As the song continues, Mirabel sings about her altruistic motives if she had powers, and she comes to find out that she has to chase down the destiny that awaits her. When she discovers that her family is losing their powers, she goes on a quest to find out why, all the while learning that she didn’t need magic to provide for her family or community.
1. “Part of Your World” — The Little Mermaid
The “I Want” songs that defines the “I Want” song. Sung beautifully by Jodi Benson, The Little Mermaid‘s “Part of Your World” connects with its audience by having its protagonist give them a better understanding of her relationship with her father and her hopes and dreams of walking amongst the humans on the surface world. The song’s preface has Ariel wondering how a world that produces “gadgets and gizmos a-plenty,” “whozits and whatzits galore,” and twenty thingamabobs could be so bad after her dad repeatedly warned her that the surface world was dangerous.
The song contains everything that we need to know about Ariel’s fascination with the humans who walk and dance on the surface world. “I wanna be where the people are I wanna see, wanna see them dancin.'” The song also includes lyrics expressing her frustration with being the daughter of a helicopter father who doesn’t understand her dreams of wanting to experience more than the swimming ocean waters and desire to spend a day on the sand. “What would I give if I could live out of these waters?/ What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sand?/ Bet’cha on land they understand/ Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters Bright young women, sick of swimmin’/ Ready to stand.” The song also spotlights her curiosity as she wonders what fire is and why does it burn, and what it would be like to have feet that’s required for dancing and walking, and strolling down a street. So she awaits the day when she can explore the shore up above and longs to be part of their world.