10 best Disney soundtracks: the music from your favourite Disney films ranked
Sean Wilson counts down his top 10 Disney soundtracks, but do you agree with his choices - or have we missed your favourite?
One cannot separate the magic of a Walt Disney movie from its accompanying soundtrack.
More often than not, it is the music that enhances our understanding of the Disney viewing experience, and with the remake of The Little Mermaid now on release, scored by the original movie’s composer Alan Menken, we’re delving into the archives.
Here, then, are the best and most memorable Disney soundtracks from the studio’s illustrious history.
Best Disney soundtracks
10. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
In 10th place and kicking off the top 10 is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Disney’s bracingly mature adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel benefits immeasurably from Alan Menken’s highly dramatic score, one of his finest for a Disney animation.
Avant-garde choral chants and impassioned string arias mesh smoothly with the songs co-written by Menken and Stephen Schwartz (‘Out There’, ‘God Help the Outcasts’, ‘Hellfire’), which both lament the tragedy and celebrate the humanity of the titular Quasimodo. Both Menken and Schwartz were Oscar nominated for their efforts.
9. Frozen (2013)
Post-Frozen, it was impossible for any Disney addict to simply ‘let it go’. The Oscar-winning power ballad sensation was composed by husband-and-wife song-writing team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and memorably performed by Idina Menzel in her role as Queen Elsa.
It both honours and updates the longstanding Disney tradition of song as a liberating form of outer expression. But let’s not forget the stalwart efforts of composer Christophe Beck whose robust underscore is clad in grace notes of wintry charm and propulsive adventure.
8. Aladdin (1992)
In 8th place is Aladdin. Alan Menken’s third Disney project is a riot of Middle Eastern mysticism and inspired Robin Williams riffing in his role as the Genie. The latter’s rambunctious ‘Friend Like Me’ is but one of the jewels in the Aladdin soundtrack, which saw Menken collaborating with lyricist Tim Rice after Howard Ashman’s death in 1991.
Romantic duet ‘A Whole New World’ clinched the Oscar and Menken’s colourful underscore (also Oscar-winning) swirls and eddies like the sands of Agrabah. In 2019, Menken successfully revisited his work for Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake.
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7. Mulan (1998)
Jerry Goldsmith’s sweeping score for Mulan revisits the same methodology as his masterful work on The Secret of NIMH (1982): treat animation as you would live-action. Goldsmith’s characteristic command of brass is juiced with subtle electronic interludes and majestic character writing, honouring Mulan’s evolution into a classic Disney hero.
Goldsmith shared his final Oscar nomination with songwriters Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, whose eclectic contributions range from the humorous (‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’) to the empowering (‘Reflection’, performed by Christina Aguilera).
6. The Lion King (1994)
Composer Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-winning work is the beating heart of orphaned lion Simba’s redemption, unerringly dramatic as it taps into the Hamlet-aping undercurrents of the story.
From moving choral requiems to celebratory African instrumentation, plus vocals from Lebo M and Carmen Twillie, Lion King remains one of Zimmer’s greatest achievements. The same could be said of song artists Elton John and Tim Rice who walked away with their own Academy Award for the romantic ballad ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’.
We named Zimmer one of the best film composers of all time
5. The Little Mermaid (1989)
Here’s the movie that kick-started Disney’s ‘renaissance’ period, rescuing the company from the doldrums. Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman’s Oscar-winning music takes at least 50% of the credit for that, blowing away years of creative stagnation via witty song writing, a vibrant sense of Broadway sensationalism and intricate calypso instrumentation.
In its larger-than-life capabilities, the soundtrack for The Little Mermaid transformed the eponymous Ariel into more than just another animated character: she became an emblem for a bold new era of Disney animation. In 2023, Menken revisits and updates his work, adjusting existing songs and crafting new ones in collaboration with Moana’s Lin-Manuel Miranda.
4. Fantasia (1940)
In 4th place is Fantasia. Most Disney movies elicit an original, non-diegetic soundtrack from one or more individuals, but the pioneering Fantasia offers something different. This Disney musical anthology sets eight animated interludes to a repertoire of beloved musical staples, conducted by Leopold Stokowski and largely performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, encompassing the likes of Tchaikovsky (‘The Nutcracker Suite’) and Stravinsky (‘The Rite of Spring’). It’s a somewhat unusual but intriguing approach from the Mouse House, and one that has been credited with introducing younger audiences to a rich array of classical staples.
3. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Disney’s glitteringly beautiful and emotional animation, one of the studio’s grandest achievements, soars off the back of its Alan Menken soundtrack. The title track, which accompanies the famous CG-assisted dance between the Beast and Belle, bears the sensitive tones of Angela Lansbury, and the theme acts as the backbone of Menken’s sumptuous underscore.
Darkly dramatic and achingly romantic by turns, one imagines that the poignant tone of Menken’s work was influenced by the tragic passing of collaborator Howard Ashman midway through production (Tim Rice later stepped in).
2. Mary Poppins (1964)
The work of the Sherman Brothers, Richard and Robert, is the musical backbone of this live-action Disney classic. Their imaginative song writing is invested with even greater levels of nuance courtesy of Julie Andrews’ peerless and mellifluous vocals, which range the musical scale from whimsical (‘A Spoonful of Sugar’) to soaringly emotive (‘Feed the Birds’, which Walt Disney described as his personal favourite).
The construction of the soundtrack was notoriously difficult, overseen as it was by prickly Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, but the Sherman’s work has more than stood the test of time.
We named Mary Poppins one of the Best Film Musicals of All Time
1. The Jungle Book (1967)
And the title of best Disney soundtrack goes to The Jungle Book. Who would have thought that foot-tapping jazz would mesh so effectively with Rudyard Kipling’s classic source material? This beloved Disney animation (the last overseen by Walt Disney in his lifetime) swings for the fences, tonally speaking, and conjures what is probably the catchiest, most enduringly popular Disney soundtrack of all time.
From ‘Bare Necessities’ to ‘I Wanna Be Like You’, the movie sports enough classic tracks for several Disney films combined, further boosted by the authentic presence of jazz artists including Louis Prima. With composer George Bruns and the Sherman brothers also contributing, it’s a funky, highly entertaining example of how music emboldens the Disney brand.
Main image © Getty Images
Sean Wilson is a UK-based film and soundtrack journalist for the likes of Film Score Monthly, Cineworld, Den of Geek, HeyUGuys and Little White Lies. With several years’ experience interviewing many of Hollywood’s leading film composers, Sean is also the author of The Sound of Cinema: Hollywood Film Music from the Silents to the Present Day. The book explores the 120-plus-year history of the evolution of film music, exploring the work of pioneering artists including Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann and John Williams. In addition, Sean’s writing can be found on the likes of Composer Magazine for Spitfire Audio, and he’s also the co-host of both the Scoreheads soundtrack podcast and the Frame to Frame podcast.’