If you’re going to make a good movie you always want to start on the right foot and for Disney’s collection of animated features that often includes a great musical number. Whether it’s classic Disney pictures, the Disney Renaissance films, new age pictures, or Pixar features Disney’s collection of animated movies have provided some of the best opening numbers in all of cinema and since “The Lion King”, which featured it’s own epic opening song, is getting a live-action remake this weekend I found myself inspired to look at the best of the best Disney tunes that brought us into their respective films right out of the gate. These are my picks for the Top 10 Opening Songs in Disney Animated Films.
For this list, I looked over Disney’s library of opening songs for any animated picture released under its banner. That means Disney Animation and Pixar films both apply as well as any animated property in between as long as it’s owned by Disney. To be considered an opening song the tune must be the first song in the movie and be included in the first fifteen minutes. No direct to video films were considered for this list so sadly while I love “He Lives in You” from “The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride” I did not include it on this list. I also did not consider anything from Disney or Pixar shorts. They had to be from theatrically released feature-length films. Finally, I’m talking about songs with lyrics so even if a film has a beautiful tone-setting opening instrumental track, like “Finding Nemo” for example, it won’t be included here.
What opening song from Disney’s library of animated classics is your favorite? Let me know in the comments below and enjoy the list. Look for my review of the live-action “The Lion King” remake coming soon.
10. “Once Upon a Time In New York City” from “Oliver & Company”
Written by Barry Mann and Howard Ashman and sung by Huey Lewis, “Once Upon a Time in New York City” is the opening track for one of Disney’s most underrated classics, “Oliver & Company”. Since the film takes place in New York it’s only fitting that the opening song would reference the city, but it does more than just name drop the setting. The lyrics speak of hope for a better tomorrow as we see Oliver left behind while his littermates are picked one by one. Like several cities in the United States, New York City is a place where many go to chase their dreams and the lyrics speak directly to Oliver by name telling him to not give up while also acknowledging that sometimes chasing a better tomorrow includes enduring those dark days where hope feels out of reach. It not only sets the stage for Oliver’s story, but it also sets the tone for the soundtrack and draws out numerous emotional responses helping the viewer immediately care for Oliver’s wellbeing as his journey begins.
9. “The Gospel Truth” from “Hercules”
The opening theme of Disney’s take on “Hercules” sees the Muses, played by Lillias White, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Cheryl Freeman, and Vanéese Y. Thomas, hijack the introduction, original being presented by Charlton Heston, and break into a catchy source of pure exposition. “The Gospel Truth” recalls the classic Greek stories of old and how the Titan’s used to rule the world until Zeus trapped them away. The entire number serves as a prologue for the story we are about to see, introducing not only Hercules’ father but also the legacy the demigod will need to live up to and the Titans that serve as villains of the story. The title is also a slick play on words using the phrase “Gospel truth” to indicate that the Muses’ stories are more than just tales, but actual events in the same way many believe in the stories of the Bible. Considering that Greek Gods were in many way precursors to modern God-fearing belief systems it’s a fun nod to history. “The Gospel Truth” is a groovy tune that brings us right into the story, giving audiences everything they need to know before Hercules’ adventure begins.
8. “This is Halloween” from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”
Many forget that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is actually a Disney movie. Released under the studio’s now-defunct Touchstone Pictures label, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is much darker than many of Disney’s other animated classics and this opening song sets that mood perfectly. “This is Halloween” immediately draws you into this world of everlasting Halloween introducing many major and minor characters, some even by name, on a personalized tour of Halloween Town. The song still rings today as a celebration of the simple joys that Halloween provides, but in the context of the film, it serves as a subtle way to justify the meshing of Halloween and Christmas. As we hear the citizens explain their love for the holiday, we begin to realize they enjoy Halloween as much as many enjoy Christmas. It’s their time of happiness and fun. “This is Halloween” remains an iconic earworm representing one of the most popular holidays in the world and even received mainstream remakes by Marilyn Manson and Panic! at the Disco adding to its enormous legacy.
7. “Two World, One Family” from “Tarzan”
“Tarzan” doesn’t waste any time getting to the point with its opening song. Immediately we see baby Tarzan and his parents become stranded after their ship sinks and before any words can be spoken Phil Collins comes right in with “Two Worlds, One Family”. The song shifts between addressing the Gorillas and the humans, fitting considering it’s about two worlds uniting, but it’s the different tones that make this song special. When the gorillas are front and center the song is much softer speaking to their simple peace, but it becomes more energetic and louder as we see Tarzan’s family attempt to start a new life on the island shoreline speaking to their will to persevere. By the end of the song, both worlds unite through shared tragedy as Tarzan and Kala are brought together. “Two Worlds” is a definite standout 90s Disney classic that drives home the idea of coexistence that serves as an important theme of the movie. Its ability to shift between tones and tackle two stories at the same time makes it all the more impressive as it sets the stage for a mother/son relationship that helps drive the rest of the film.
6. “Arabian Nights” from “Aladdin”
The 1992 classic “Aladdin” doesn’t take long to get right into its setting thanks to this intro song written by Howard Ashman and performed by Bruce Adler. “Arabian Nights” differs from others on this list in that its goal is more to establish the world rather than the characters or story. It’s sung by the Peddler who introduces us to life and the environment of Agrabah and the Arabian desert. It works its way slowly to a crescendo as the city is revealed in all its majesty. The song also serves as a not-so-subtle reference to the “Arabian Nights” stories that inspired “Aladdin” and its spinoff TV show where this theme served as the opening song as well. “Arabian Nights” is a perfect way to bring us right into Aladdin’s world, describing not only the treacherous conditions of the land but also some of the magic to be found there (name dropping the flying carpet) and asking the audience to come on in and visit this fantastic world. Don’t mind if we do.
5. “Belle” from “Beauty and the Beast”
A lot of songs on this list setup the overall story as well as several characters, but this song’s focus is meant to introduce us to just one: Belle. The “beauty” of the title, Belle (played by Paige O’Hara) starts off the song by describing her quiet town and the monotony of her simple life. When the townsfolk join in it becomes a back and forth between Belle and the citizens as she seeks adventure in the great wide somewhere and the townspeople comment on Belle’s strange quirks and adventurous nature that make her an anomaly in their community. We’re given everything we need to know about not only Belle as a character and the town she lives in but also her motivations and her contrary perspective to the social norm. While not the film’s signature song it is a close second to the title track and even competed against the title song at the Oscars. It has since become one of Disney’s most iconic earworms and one of the studio’s quintessential girl power anthems.
4. “The Bells of Notre Dame” from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
Composed by Alan Menken and written by Stephen Schwartz, “The Bells of Notre Dame” is sung by the clown Cloplin as he tells of the story of the hunchback who rings the bells of the famous Parisian church. This tune does so much to set up the mood and story of this underrated 90s Disney classic, detailing the significance of Notre Dame to the culture of Paris and establishing Quasimodo’s origins. In the process, it also sets up the tone of the entire film and introduces us to the film’s villain, Frollo. As far as exposition songs go, this is one of Disney’s best as it introduces the young target audiences to some very mature ideas and themes that are significant to the plot of the film including the ultimate question: who is the real monster in this story? Just as Cloplin presents this song as a way to entertain children, Disney uses the song as a way to establish what turns out to be one of their deepest and most complex stories from the Disney Renaissance for young viewers to understand. Its themes ring even louder today in an increasingly divisive world.
3. “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from “Toy Story”
Probably Pixar’s most famous song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” is just one of many reasons why the “Toy Story” remains so beloved after two decades. Written and sung by Randy Newman, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” comes in a little later than many songs on this list but nonetheless serves as a fitting introduction to a relationship that drives the core story. After Andy gets done playing with all of his toys, he spends some quality time with his favorite toy, Woody. The song speaks to the bonds of friendship that helps give purpose and a sense of belonging. It’s this bond and the benefits that come from it that serves as the main motivator for Woody and sums up the relationship he has with Andy. The song has gone on to be an important part of each of the four “Toy Story” movies, although it’s more of a nostalgic reference in the fourth film. “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” is more than just the main theme to Pixar’s biggest franchise. It’s a catchy, resilient tune that reminds us all why friendship, and our beloved toys which served as surrogate friends in our time of need, are such important parts of our lives.
2. “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King”
“The Circle of Life” is an amazing track, to say the least, and serves as the music to one of the greatest movie openings of all time. This track and its accompanying animation not only sets the stage and the scenery but also tackles the idea that life is a circle full of possibilities and while it will someday end it’s important to enjoy what we have while we have it. It’s this cyclical idea of life as a journey that drives Simba’s story as he matures from an adventurous child to a noble king. Aside from its themes and epic production, “The Circle of Life” has become one of Disney’s most iconic songs of all time, period. How many people have tried to tackle the tribal babble that starts off the tune? It demands your attention and draws you right into the majesty of the setting and story without fail. Even all these years later, as the remake is set to be released, “The Circle of Life” continues to resonate with fans young and old with its important and timeless message and themes as well as its place in movie history as one of the most epic movie intros in history.
1. “When You Wish Upon a Star”
For me there was never a more appropriate choice. “When You Wish Upon a Star” is the opening track to Disney’s 1940 classic “Pinocchio” and has gone on to become not just that film’s theme, but today represents the entire Disney empire. Immediately kicking off the film through the vocal stylings of Cliff Edwards, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is presented as being sung by Jiminy Cricket who prepares to tell us the story of Pinocchio, a wooden boy brought to life by Geppetto’s wish upon a star and later has his own wish granted to be a real boy. You can’t find a more fitting opening number than that as the song speaks to how a simple wish can turn into something so much bigger if you believe in it. “When You Wish Upon a Star” is still as memorable and inspiring today as it was almost 80 years ago enduring as one of Disney’s most iconic numbers and the studio’s signature song. To top things off it was the first Disney song to win an Oscar and was enshrined in the Library of Congress in 2009 establishing a legacy that few other songs in any of Disney’s countless classics has ever been able to match.