Acts of true love are everywhere in our fiction. In many of these narratives, performing an act of true love—such as a kiss—has the magical ability to save someone from certain death brought about by a curse. In many older Disney films and fairy tale stories, true love is almost always portrayed as romantic. Recently, though, we’ve gotten a few new interpretations on the mythos. In the new Sleeping Beauty movie, Maleficent, a platonic kiss Maleficent gives Aurora saves her life. And in Once Upon A Time, Emma saves her son Henry with a motherly kiss on his forehead. Then there’s Frozen, which, between the sisters Anna and Elsa, gives us yet another interpretation of true love, one that I like far more.
A lot of people, even those on this blog, have argued that the act of true love in Maleficent was less magical than it could have been, because we had already seen Frozen. Frozen, and even Once Upon a Time, had already introduced us to the idea of platonic love being just as powerful as romantic love. Pisces makes a really good point about that in his review of the movie. He also argues that had the release dates been reversed, it would have been Frozen that seemed less magical and Maleficent would have been more groundbreaking, which is also a really good point. However, while the two situations are similar to each other, Frozen’s interpretation of true love still differs from both Maleficent’s and Once Upon A Time’s.
Maleficent tells the story of the young princess Aurora, who, cursed by Maleficent to prick her finger and fall into eternal sleep when she turns sixteen, can only be saved by true love’s kiss. As she grows older and the dreaded day in question draws nearer, Maleficent learns to love Aurora. After she’s cursed, Maleficent, sorry for what she had done, apologizes to Aurora and kisses her on the forehead. As Maleficent truly loves Aurora, Aurora is now saved from the curse. In Once Upon a Time, the situation is much the same. Henry eats a poisoned apple and falls into a deep sleep. His birth mother Emma goes to see him in the hospital and gives him a kiss on the forehead. Like Aurora, Henry wakes up.
To start off, both Maleficent and OUAT still adhere to the idea that true love has to come from a kiss. Maleficent kisses Aurora and Emma kisses Henry. When we think of a seeing a kiss in a movie, we almost always think of something romantic, and it was good that neither Maleficent nor OUAT followed that trend. In the original Sleeping Beauty, and even in something like Snow White, our female protagonists are cursed, fall asleep, and then are kissed awake by men they barely know. And these kisses, that are sexual in nature, that they could not have consented to, are then seen as romantic. So though I like that both Maleficent and OUAT teach us about other kinds of love and other reasons to kiss, at the end of the day, a kiss is still involved. And sadly, both Henry and Aurora become passive players in their own curse.
Both Henry and Aurora are saved by acts of true love being done to them. Though they are the ones cursed, at no point in time in the process of healing do they actively contribute to removing their curses. They lie there sleeping—they are little more than objects used to teach the audience how much someone else loves them. And that love is shown, once again, in the form of a kiss, as if true love can never take another form.
In Frozen, it’s a little different. The act of true love can’t come from anybody except Anna. Anna is cursed by Elsa’s ice powers, and Kristoff takes her to his troll family to find out what’s wrong. Immediately, the trolls start singing about true love between Kristoff and Anna, and even want to marry the two. Following that, the elder troll comes up and tells Anna that she has been cursed and that only an act of true love will save her. Kristoff decides to take Anna back to her castle so that she can receive a kiss from her fiancé. The movie continuously builds up the idea of true love as having to come from a romantic kiss. For a good long while, it attempts to trick us into thinking that Anna needs a significant other in her life in order to save her. After her plan to get a kiss from her fiancé fails, Anna tells her friend Olaf that she doesn’t even know what love is, and he responds that love is putting someone else’s needs before your own. As the movie comes to its climax, Anna is faced with a choice: she can either run to Kristoff, a guy she barely knows, and let him kiss her—or she can run to her sister and save Elsa’s life instead.
In this scene, Frozen subverts both these true love tropes. Anna saves herself from the curse, instead of being saved by somebody else, and at no point is there a kiss (between Anna and Elsa, at least). Anna does this by forgoing a kiss from Kristoff and choosing instead to save Elsa’s life. In the process, her own time runs out and her curse turns her into a statue of ice. Elsa, stricken with grief over Anna’s supposed demise, runs her hands over Anna’s face, cries, and hugs her statue. Less than a minute later, Anna thaws out, perfectly fine. Following that, she tells Elsa that she loves her, and Olaf reiterates for the audience that an act of true love broke her curse. Anna, unlike Aurora and Henry, is not a passive player here. The act of true love that saves her isn’t being done to Anna; it comes from her instead. Elsa doesn’t save Anna, nor does Kristoff. Anna saves herself, and she does it by sacrificing her own wellbeing for her sister’s.
Normally, when we think “act of true love”, even if it’s not romantic, we tend to only think “kiss”. And Frozen completely throws away that trope, while also managing to let Anna keep her agency. I think that’s a much more powerful and self-sacrificing message than what we get in Maleficent and OUAT. Henry and Aurora are dependent on Emma and Maleficent to save them, but Anna is dependent on no one but herself. Instead of being acted upon by someone else who loves her, Anna acted for the betterment of another person. She played a much more active role because she chose to put her sister before herself. With no kiss involved, Anna gives us a fantastic act of true love, and it’s one I much prefer.