Last time we celebrated the “I Want” song, taking it for what it is: a sweet, fun little through-line into being invested in our protagonist.
But Disney movies began to do a strange thing with their “I Want” songs right around the heart of the Renaissance. Rather than set up our protagonist’s happily-ever-after, the songs instead set up a cruel life-lesson for our characters to suffer through. As always, there’s a bit of a spectrum for this; not all ironic “I Want” songs set up our heroes to get badly hurt, but a couple of them do.
We are intrigued by this trend and have decided to talk it through. Let’s start at the beginning.
(and be warned that we use the phrase “learn him” or “learned them” a couple of times and we don’t know why. Learn us some explanation for why we used that phrase please.)
(screencaps AS ALWAYS from disney screencaps dot com)
I Just Can’t Wait to be King
Simba sings this very fun and carefree song early in The Lion King. You might suggest that it doesn’t count as an “I Want” song, and sure, its not as explicit as Ariel’s “I wanna be where the people are,” or Belle’s “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere,” but Simba’s little romp through imagining how great it’ll be to finally become an adult with a frightening amount of responsibility fits in with some of the others, like Snow White’s “Someday my Prince will come.” She isn’t explicitly saying, “I want my prince to show up,” but it’s still clear that’s what she wants, even with the indirect language. She’s just being demure about it. (It’s important to note this because a lot of the “I Want” songs use indirect language, and we’re just going to go ahead and assume that when Disney protags say things like, “I just can’t wait,” or “When will my,” or “For the first time,” or whatever, they actually mean that they want those things, and not just vaguely speculating about the possibilities.)
Simba wants to be king. He imagines a carefree existence in which he can go desecrate burial sites with Nala without supervision, and he can fight hyenas from dawn until dusk with no one to send him home out of parental concern for his safety. Oh Simba, our sweet summer child.
Simba gets what he wants. And how. Mufasa is murdered after Scar sings his version of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” which includes a lot more death threats than Simba’s does. This of course makes Simba the rightful king, and then he is chased away by a physical threat of death and the unfair, unwarranted guilt he is made to feel. He still has Sarabi, but Scar deliberately severs the tie by manipulating and scaring the cub. “What will your mother think?”
(can we take this opportunity to despise Scar for a second)
So two things: One, Simba is the king. It doesn’t matter that Scar pretends that he’s dead. He’s alive, and that makes him the king whether he’s eating grubs with Timon and Puumba in the rainforest or roaring on Pride Rock. It’s easy to forget this, because Hakuna Matata is so fun and also kind of ironic. But when Nala shows up and ruins everything by saying, “And that means, you’re the king,” even Timon and Puumba acknowledge the truth of this statement. Puumba does so with reverence and incorrect diction. Timon, cynical, cynical Timon, doesn’t believe it for a second, but then he cements it for the audience: “I can’t believe it. You’re the king? And you never told us?”
Simba’s like, “Look, I’m still the same guy.”
Timon, apparently plotting something: “But with power!”
So it’s settled. Simba is the king, and he has been since Mufasa’s death. Add this to the fact that Simba has believed since then that his father’s death is his own fault, and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” is suddenly pretty horrific.
As for two, Simba now has no one telling him to do this, be there, stop that, see here, but it’s not at all the way he imagined. It’s not all bad, of course, because meeting Timon and Puumba means that he also meets the concept of not ever worrying about his problems, but we know that this is unsustainable. Everything Simba wants in “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” comes true, but his freedom and carefree life is a lie, and is built on the murder of his father. Even before Nala shows up to ruin everything, something as simple and supposedly nice as looking up at the stars reminds him of his painful past. You’re the king, though, Simba! Remember when that was all you wanted?
We don’t think the movie is punishing Simba, but if not, why put this retrospectively cruel song in there at all?
Partly, we think, is the ever present need in Disney films to speak to and about other Disney films. Disney loves itself some Disney. So they’re making a movie, the formula demands an “I Want” song, and it definitely makes sense for a crown prince to be excited about his future. But remember how Ariel gets the legs she wanted, but it’s also a trap? Why not take it even further, and have Simba’s wish come true in the most horrific way possible?
The other part would be how well it fits in to the rest of the film. The theme is leadership, male leadership in particular, and our villain really wants all of the perks of kinghood without any of the actual responsibility. Simba sings a fun little song about doing whatever he wants once no one can question him, but he grows up and becomes a good king, fighting a difficult battle (mostly against himself) because his kingdom needs him to. His arc is just magical to watch.
Simba’s cruel “I Want” song serves his characterization. Our hero learns. He starts from a place of naivety, and when confronted with the horrors of adulthood and leadership in extremes that no one should have to face, especially as a child, he devolves into a carefree layabout in order to cope. And when he roars at the tip of Pride Rock, we know how far he has come.
Quasi sings about wanting to go outside. Ultimately it seems that this wish is fair and fulfilled, since Esmeralda pulls him out into the sunlight after the war on Notre Dame, and he is accepted by the crowd.
Unfortunately for Quasi, before this happy ending, his venturing outside teaches him something: he is never going out there again. No sir.
When Paris gets a taste of his face, at first they don’t know how to react, and then Clopin’s like, “Dude, this is exactly what we asked for,” so they celebrate, but then the second some bozo guard decides to throw fruit everyone’s suddenly like, “Yeah, cool, that’s actually a better idea.” The cruelty of this scene, which may actually be the standout for a Disney film, makes us wonder about the happy ending. Sure, everyone is being nice to him now, because Es and that little girl are accepting of him, but in five minutes when someone throws some rotten tomato at him it’ll be pandemonium all over again. Or maybe we’re supposed to believe that Frollo’s reign of terror learned them all some lessons about prejudice and things. Fine. We can buy that. But only because of the scenes showing people refusing to turn Es in, and Frollo trying to burn the miller family alive in front of horrified witnesses
this is a children’s movie.
Quasi wants to be “like ordinary men who freely walk about,” which could be interpreted as his wanting to look like everyone else, but we prefer to see it as his wanting to be able to walk around and, we suppose, not worry about having fruit thrown at him – which would be a perfectly reasonable request if not for the guards.
In theory the Feast of Fools should provide that perfect opportunity for Quasi to be accepted among the crowd because he can go in disguise. It does at first, but because people behave badly in a crowd it turns poisonous pretty quickly. Not to mention that manipulative Frollo can go on and on about how he’s protecting Quasi at the beginning of the movie, but he has many an opportunity to stop the crowd torturing Quasi and refuses, in order to teach him a lesson. The audience learns two things through “Out There” and the complementary torture scene: Quasi really wants to go outside, but we know why he’s not going to do it again, until it becomes absolutely necessary; and we learn that Frollo is the worst. Which we already knew. But it’s nice to have a reminder, we suppose.
In the end, Quasi being accepted by the crowd is more powerful because we know that’s all he wanted all along, and we also know how badly wrong this could have gone because THEY SHOWED IT TO US OMG WHY
It’s kind of like if Snow White riding off to the Prince’s castle at the end was preceded by the Prince showing up briefly near the beginning but he’s terrifying OH WAIT
Go the Distance
So, first thing’s first. Lindsay Ellis made this:
(watch this 37 minutes of EXCELLENT for a thorough look at Hercules as well as its want vs need and Clements and Musker and “chosen one” stories and other 90s Disney about men and. Just watch it)
Hercules is no The Lion King. Or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. So the ironic “I Want” song is a little less poignant, but it exists so whatever, we’ll discuss it.
Herc feels like an outsider because he’s constantly endangering the lives of everyone around him with his supersonic strength. He just wishes like he felt like he belonged. We could get with this a little more if his parents aren’t shown to be such sweet and supportive people, but, sweet and supportive parents are a nice change. Right, Lady Tremaine?
Partway through the song he decides that the gods probably have the answers, and talking to them will learn him how to find where he belongs. He’s right (for now) – Zeus spills the beans, and Hercules learns that he can and should become A True Hero™ so that he can rejoin the gods and his bio parents, thus, belonging.
His reprise is basically about how that’s what he’s going to do, by Jove.
But in the end he decides he belongs in the human world with Meg.
This is ironic, not like rain on your wedding day, but instead like getting the certification you need to finally get into Mount Olympus but it turns out that in order to get that certification you accidentally had to fall in love with someone and then you decide that you actually belong with the person you fell in love with instead of the gods and the bio parents on Mount Olympus. It seems like we could have saved Herc some time and just signed him up for eHarmony or something. Except not, obviously. We like this movie, ridiculous as it is.
And Meg is the best. EVERYONE belongs with Meg.
Huge Interlude: it has not escaped our notice that all of these ironic “I Want” songs are sung by men. Men, you aren’t allowed to want something and just get it, no questions asked. That’s just for us women types.
Here, one by a girl. Mulan sings “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” – a sad little ditty about not being able to pass as a dutiful bride even though she looks exactly like one. Mulan is worried that the person she truly is inside is not capable of making her family proud, and as much as she tries, and she puts the dress on and the makeup, she just isn’t that person.
She’s not entirely angry at herself for failing, of course. What she wants is a little bit more complicated than just, “I wish I could be exactly the way I’m supposed to be according to these people.” She wants to be allowed to be herself and be accepted as she is. But how, with such rigid gender roles?
Shortly after this song, Mulan gets to feel more like herself by disguising as a man. As a man, she can be true to herself by rescuing her father, which is all she cares about once Chi Fu rides in with conscription notices. As time goes on she starts to excel and seems to be enjoying herself as well.
But the whole time she’s still hyper conscious of being a woman disguised as a man. Her reflection still isn’t showing who she truly is. When she’s finally revealed as a woman, coincidentally enough at the same moment that she should be being celebrated as an intensely heroic hero, she finds herself rejected once again, even though she’s done everything right this time. And really we could argue that her meeting with the matchmaker was going fine as well, but Cri Kee ruined everything. And it isn’t even Cri Kee, really. She can’t just say outright, “Hey, there’s a cricket in your tea, ma’am,” because she’s a woman and must be silent. And even when she’s saving her commanding officer in a battle she just single-handedly won, she’s not even allowed to be there because she’s a woman and can’t impersonate a soldier.
In the end, as with Quasi, it seems that Mulan does eventually get her wish. The Emperor of China offers her a very important job right after he and everyone else bows to her for being AWESOME. But all she wants is to get home. She presents all of the gifts she received for saving China while dressed as herself, no bridal makeup, no cheat sheet on her wrist, no armour and very bad man-impersonation voice, but her dad’s just like, “Literally all I care about is you.”
So she gets there, but she wouldn’t have been able to without drastically changing her appearance and pretending to be a whole other person. Semi-ironic.
No you’re not, Tiana.
Tiana’s “I Want” song is only ironic because it’s not even an “I Want” song.
OK, just bear with is.
We’ve said the vague, indirect language still ultimately means “I want,” but in Tiana’s case, she’s not vaguely saying she wants something. She’s saying, “I’m doing it. It’s happening. I’m making it happen.”
As a typical “I Want” song, it wouldn’t be ironic at all. It would be more like Rapunzel’s “When Will My Life Begin,” which explains what she wants and sets her up to get it, which she does. Tiana gets her restaurant at the end, as well as a bonus prince on the side. But “Almost There” isn’t about wanting, not really. She’s celebrating getting what she wants prematurely. She isn’t almost there, because of unhappy circumstance, racist realtors, voodoo madness, and froggy princes. These are things completely out of her control. Fairy tale adventure Disney movie things (OK not the racism and realtors) (OK maybe the racism a little bit because we remember Peter Pan and Dumbo) (but still).
When all seems lost right at the beginning because the realtors are going to sell the place to someone else, she gets a sad reprise, “People would have come from everywhere, and I was almost there.” This is the moment where her logical, driven, determined self has given up, and afterwards the last vestiges of hope compel her to wish on Evangeline. It’s only now that she gets to make wishes, when her drive and determination and hard work just couldn’t beat out random rich buyers and racism.
Tiana is an interesting princess because she basically has to be tricked into participating in her own fairy tale. That stuff is for Lotte, after all. She is 110% against this frog prince story. She doesn’t kiss frogs, as a rule. But she does kiss frog-Naveen, and she does eventually participate in the fairy tale. But first, before she can do the fairy tale thing, she needs to watch all of her hard work NOT pay off the way it was supposed to for arbitrary and random circumstance reasons.
As a child, her father tells her, “That star can only take you part of the way.” He encourages her to wish and dream, but she has to help her dreams on with a bit of hard work. His words are “a bit of hard work.” Tiana apparently takes this to mean she should only get two seconds of sleep daily, and also she shouldn’t do anything not related to hard work ever, even if she kind of wants to.
She goes to a Masquerade Ball and makes beignets. WHAT. (We know she was doing it for the last of the down payment but still. It makes it hard to believe she ever goes to a party and doesn’t just serve or cater or whatever. Juggle? DJ? Make balloon animals?)
Tiana is the princess who openly challenges the “Cause if you’re good and you’re attractive, no need to be proactive, good things will just happen to you!”* aspect of Disney protagonists. But her song shows that hard work is just another form of wishing, one that we value more as a culture because of individualism and stuff. At the end of all of that hard work is supposed to be the shining reward, right? Because you didn’t just hope and dream, you backed it up. But it doesn’t here, not for Tiana. She did all the work, but now she has to find a magical princess-kiss for Naveen or she’ll just be a frog forever. “Almost There” is not ironic because she doesn’t get there eventually, it’s ironic because of where she has to go to get there – down a road of magic and voodoo and dancing and love. And it’s only when she gives up completely on her restaurant that she gets what she wants, by getting what she needs: love. Even while frogging.
Tiana’s mantra: you can’t just kiss frogs and expect your prince charming to show up. You have to work hard. Wishing on stars is for kids.
The movie: You have to work hard, but even then someone is likely to stop you for arbitrary reasons, and then you befriend an enforcer alligator and kiss a frog and suddenly you’re good. The wishing and dreaming is what keeps you centered through transforming into an amphibian. So there.
We have a lot to say about this movie and will probably do it at some point, but for now, this: “Almost There” is the crown jewel of Tiana’s fool-proof “get what you want by getting it yourself” plan, but it’s foiled because Disney would like to take the opportunity to reinforce the Disney ideals of wishing, magic, love, and getting a LOT of help from singing animals.
For the First Time in Forever
Elsa, we believe, doesn’t get an “I Want” song. That’s because in this song, she’s just singing a personal mantra of “DO WHATEVER YOU HAVE TO TO MAKE SURE NOBODY KNOWS.” There’s also “Let it Go,” but this time she’s talking to herself about what she should do now that she’s “free.”
Also! Anna sings to Elsa, “Do you want to build a snowman?”
We can surmise that Elsa does, in fact, want to build a snowman, as it’s one of the first things she does once she’s alone.
But it’s Anna who sings about it. It’s really cool to us that Elsa’s songs are her addressing herself about what she has to do, what she’s finally allowed to do, and there’s one that belongs to her sister asking her if she wants to do something that she definitely does want to do. That in itself is a really interesting twist in the whole “I Want” thing with the princesses and just one of the billion reasons that Frozen is not “the worst Disney movie ever and so overrated they should just go back to making stuff like Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Side note: people who say these things? Yeah, you. Quasimodo would love Anna and Elsa, and he would make really cute wooden sculptures of them, and he would be saddened by your unnecessarily aggressive and anti-intellectual approach to movie criticism. Thank you for listening.
It makes sense that Elsa doesn’t have an “I Want” song, because it’s Anna who really is the new renaissance princess in this movie, so she’s the one who gets to wish for something. And what Anna wishes for is to enjoy the party, meet a bunch of people, and fall immediately in love.
Here again we’re in “Just Can’t Wait to be King” levels of cruelty. Anna does meet “the one,” she does embarrass herself in front of him, they do “laugh and talk all evening,” and because she knows “it all ends tomorrow, it just has to be today,” she accepts Hans’s marriage proposal.
First, Elsa’s denial of what Anna supposedly wants most in the world leads to Elsa’s accidental big reveal and the subsequent freezing of Arendell and its fjord. Then, requiring Hans to save her life with True Love’s Kiss™, he reveals that he just manipulated her. Because she was so easy to manipulate, wanting to find love so badly and all.
Anna, like Simba, is being naive. Scar and Hans are terrible manipulators. But Simba learns to be a good king who takes responsibility in spite of the horrors he endures. What does Anna learn from this cruelty?
She is sad, of course, right after Hans’s betrayal, saying to Olaf, “I don’t even know what love is.” But soon afterwards, she’s ready to accept the possibility that Kristoff might actually love her enough to save her. She doesn’t lose her ability to trust, which is nice.
What’s also important, REALLY important, about her sad but strong reaction to Hans’s betrayal, is that it serves as a smaller version of what’s going on between her and Elsa. Anna comes to Elsa’s palace hoping to be able to connect with her sister, now that she knows the truth. Nothing should come between them at this point, right? But Elsa is still terrified that she will harm Anna, so she throws her out via Marshmallow. And before this, she accidentally strikes her in the heart, which Anna later learns will kill her if she can’t find an act of true love to thaw it.
This is mirrored by Hans’s betrayal: she comes to him in need, not even suspecting that he will refuse to help her (because she is an optimist, she was positive that she and Elsa could work things out as well). Hans refuses, reveals he doesn’t love her and was just using her, and as if that wasn’t enough hurt to dole out, he mocks her and her optimism – striking in the heart.
Hans is cruel to Anna. He deliberately hurts her. Not kissing her is one thing, but mocking her, being cruel in what he says to her, could have potentially ruined her for being able to be open-hearted to other people, which she needs to be in order to commit the act of true love that will save her life. But she is still able to be optimistic, and she is still open to the possibility of maybe loving some other guy. So we know that even though Elsa hurt her, not deliberately but in a much more harmful way, Anna will be capable of and willing to forgive her, to the point of sacrificing her life for Elsa’s. It’s because of “For the First Time in Forever” that we know how much Anna has learned about love and herself in this short amount of time, or perhaps what she sort of already knew about it without knowing she knew.
Imagine The Lion King where Simba sings solemnly about how he thinks he’s ready to take on the tough responsibilities of kinghood, and Anna sings a ballad about how she wants to be close to her sister again. That would be OK, but we’re digging the ironic “I Want” songs. We like how they’re really easy ways of rounding our characters, giving them room to grow, and how they still allow for us to connect to them and root for them to succeed in their endeavors.
If erm sang an ironic “I Want” song, it would probably be called, “I Wish there were More Vegan Restaurants in Close Proximity to Me” and the movie would end with her having no money because she spent it all on food.
If three sang an ironic “I Want” song, it would be called, “I Just Want a Raise Thank You Sir” and the movie would end with her getting a $500.00 raise and subsequently wanting another raise and being eternally dissatisfied.
*Starkid. Twisted. Hilarious. And they come around, in the end.