The so-called Disney Renaissance period spanning the decade from 1989 to 1999 gave us one of the most golden streaks of movie hits ever. And along with several animated masterpieces came some of the studio’s all-time best soundtracks that featured both showtunes and score mixed together. Today, I wanted to rank the 10 musicals that came out during this period based on the music alone. Let’s dig in!
Worst: Hercules (1997)
I never have anything nice to say about Hercules. It’s a boring film with an ugly art style — and the soundtrack is pretty lame as well. “Go the Distance” is the only standout here, and even that isn’t anything to get that excited about. The Renaissance was starting to run out of steam in the latter half of the ’90s, and you could really tell with this one.
Mulan’s a decent enough movie, but the musical portion seems tacked on with just four numbers during the flick itself. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is an absolute banger that gets a lot of repeat play in my house, with the other three fairly lacking. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is as Chinese as he can make it, but it never really caught my ear.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
I’ll say that from this point on, I honestly like all of the rest of these soundtracks and own them all. So don’t take Hunchback’s position here as a criticism — I actually am very fond of this soundtrack. It’s heavy and dark, with some powerful pieces like “The Bells of Notre Dame” and “Heaven’s Burning” ripping it up. But I’m placing it here because the score is so-so and there aren’t that many belt-out-at-the-top-of-your-lungs favorites.
Tarzan’s a weird beast of a soundtrack, no pun intended. Instead of the cast singing, it’s several Phil Collins songs interspersed with Marc Mancina’s score. As weird as that is for Disney, the risk pays off — it’s a bold take that makes for a very listenable album all the way through. “You’ll Be in My Heart” and “Strangers Like Me” are flat-out terrific, and “Trashin’ the Camp” gets silly in the best of ways.
I am powerfully nostalgic for this album (much less so for the movie itself). Like Tarzan, Pocahontas’ soundtrack is a great assembly of score and musical numbers combined. Here, the showtunes are shorter with frequent reprises, and the score actually excels even more in sparking the imagination. “Just Around the Riverbend,” “Steady as the Beating Drum,” “Mine Mine Mine,” “Savages,” and “Colors of the Wind” are spectacular. I would listen to this CD on repeat so much back in the day. And today.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
I’m a big fan of Beauty and the Beast’s score — especially the prologue piece, which is so darkly mysterious that it sucks you in along with the narration. But it’s the musical numbers here that are quite iconic and a whole lot of fun to sing along with, such as “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest.” I am quite proud of the fact that I can do the entire five-minute “Belle” from memory.
A Goofy Movie (1995)
Here’s my dark horse entry that defies any sneering that A Goofy Movie doesn’t belong here. It absolutely does. It’s far more of a musical than, say, Mulan, and has some rather underrated toe-tapping songs. “After Today” is one of the best opening musical numbers of any movie ever, and who doesn’t like the “Stand Out” and “Eye to Eye” from the Powerline performances?
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Here it is, the movie that kicked off the renaissance and gave us a soundtrack that was the “Frozen” for girls before “Frozen” was a thing. I don’t mind admitting that I’ll often listen through the whole album — score and musical numbers alike — and revel in the nautical exuberance of it all. The main titles always give me shivers, and the musical numbers are smash hit after smash hit. Just catch me on a good day, and I’ll belt out “Part of Your World,” Disney’s best “I want” song ever.
I’m putting this one in second place because I feel that Aladdin doesn’t quite get enough respect for how much FUN of a soundtrack it is. These songs go all-out, from the crooning “Arabian Nights” to the frantic “One Jump Ahead” to the powerful “Prince Ali.” My only complaint is, as with most Disney animated flicks, is that almost all of the musical numbers are in the first two-thirds of the film, leaving the last third to coast on a score alone.
The Lion King (1994)
Was there any doubt that this should take the crown? The Lion King took an already high bar for Disney’s musical team and raised it even further. It’s a true masterpiece, with loads of memorable songs and a beautiful, emotive score taking us through this tale. “Circle of Life” still gives me gooseflesh as I pump up the volume to max.
I’ve got to argue with any list that doesn’t have Beauty and the Beast as #1
Hercules was meh as a film, but Won’t Say I’m In Love is a Disney love song unlike any other, plus the whole inserting a gospel choir (?) into greek mythology theme was kind of inspired I think.