SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses Disney’s Frozen in detail, including the film’s ending. Stop reading if you haven’t seen Frozen yet!

Once upon a time, a beautiful young princess set eyes on a handsome prince. Their connection is instant and they fall in love mid-song, as animated princes and princesses so often do. But wait, not so fast. A terrible villain rises, threatening to tear this perfect couple apart for eternity. It’s ok though. True love eventually prevails, sealed with a kiss and they live happily ever after. The end. Have you heard this one before? I’m sure we all have. And thankfully, that’s not the story Frozen set out to tell, which is one more reason to love what Disney is doing with the fairytale genre.

Disney’s Frozen seemed poised to follow the formula of many a classic story that came before it. So much so, in fact, that the movie actually borders on meta as young Anna (Kristen Bell) falls blindly in love with Hans (Santino Fontana). Their instant, undeniable chemistry leads Hans to propose to Anna post-duet, and she eagerly says yes, because why not? They’re so close, they’re already finishing each others’ sandwiches. It’s ideal. Maddeningly ideal, in fact. Oh, I don’t deny adoring many a fairytale that involves an easy romance and requires little more than true love’s kiss to save the day, but watching Frozen, it’s evident Disney is keen on staying the course in defying the tradition of fairytales, which frequently put damsels in distress and require a gallant hero to save them.

We could argue that Disney’s been taking a more modern approach to its princess stories for years now. Enchanted was practically a parody of Disney’s classic princess tales, occasionally poking fun at the innocent and flighty animated princesses and their eagerness to fall in love with the first dreamy prince to cross their path. The Princess and the Frog and Tangled resumed the more traditional format of storytelling, but portrayed more stronger female protagonists. So it’s not entirely out of the blue that we should see Frozen’s Anna demonstrating bravery and rising up to be her own hero. But in terms of romance, Frozen actually turns love at first sight into a regrettable mistake, by having Anna become instantly smitten with Hans — accepting his proposal without question and later, going as far as to actually rely on him to save her life — only to discover he’s a liar with ulterior motives.

Frozen isn’t entirely set up as a romance. From the beginning, it’s evident that Elsa and Anna’s relationship as sisters is at the heart of this story, as we see Elsa demonstrating her supernatural abilities with ice as a child, and then accidentally hurting her sister, which eventually divides the two girls for the duration of their childhood. Their fractured relationship sets the introduction, so it’s not entirely shocking to see the movie come back around to sisterhood at the end. But with Anna getting engaged to Hans after knowing him less than a day, and then spending the better part of the film at the side of Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), with whom she also forms a connection, romance is a key ingredient in this story.

At first, we’re made to assume this fairytale will follow at least part of the traditional formula involving damsel in distress and the man who comes to her rescue. In the case of Frozen, this was set up to happen after Elsa accidentally zaps Anna’s heart with a bolt of cold that will eventually freeze her to death. Only, the presumed twist in saving Anna is that it will be Kristoff who saves her with an act of true love, as opposed to Hans. We might’ve thought we were a step ahead of Kristoff and Anna in figuring that out as she raced to Hans for a life-saving kiss. But the movie got the jump on us there, as the act of true love wasn’t a kiss at all. Romance was really just one numerous entertaining accessories to the true heart of this story.
Anna and Hans

If we looked closely at the trolls’ song "Fixer Upper," we should have seen the real twist coming, as so much about the end of the story is in the lyrics. The song emphasizes the reality of love, which includes accepting each others’ flaws and abilities to make bad choices…
We’re not saying you can change her, ‘cause people don’t really change.
We’re only saying that love’s a force that’s powerful and strange.
People make bad choices if they’re mad, or scared, or stressed.
Throw a little love their way and you’ll bring out their best.
True love brings out their best!

And goes on to emphasize how "true love" doesn’t only apply to romantic love…
Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper, that’s what it’s all about!
Father, sister, brother! We need each other to raise us up and round us out.
Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper, but when push comes to shove.
The only fixer-upper fixer that can fix up a fixer-upper is true, true, true, true, true, true, love…

In the end, what saves Anna is her own choice to dedicate her final living moments, not to racing to Kristoff to receive her kiss, but to saving her sister’s life, putting herself between Elsa and Hans’ falling sword. The necessary act of true love is her own, and it isn’t for her love interest but for her sister, whom she loves enough to die for, either by sword or from being frozen from the inside out. As time would have it, it was the latter that came first but only by about a second or so. Anna’s heroic act sends a powerful message about love, as it demonstrates sacrifice and the kind of unconditional "true love" that can exist between sisters. The effect of her choice resonates with Elsa, who then figures out how to reverse what she’s done.

Love once again conquers all. But what I really love about Frozen is that it emphasizes some of the reality of love, which is sacrifice. And in the process, it celebrates sisterhood and the relevance of non-romantic love to a good story. It’s not as if that’s entirely a new thing, especially for Disney. We’ve seen demonstrations of friendship and familial love scattered throughout Disney’s films over the years, but more often than not, those aspects of the story take a back seat to the romance. In the case of Disney Animation’s latest film, Frozen’s real happily-ever-after is in the reunion of two sisters and in both of their newfound understanding of the power of love.

Sure, Anna and Kristoff finally get their kiss at the end, but even then, the film seems to set their relationship up as a beginning, rather than a happy conclusion, as it acknowledges that people aren’t the shiny perfect princes and princesses we’re all familiar with in older Disney movies, and that true love isn’t something that happens in an instant or throughout the duration of a duet. People are complex and imperfect and that shouldn’t be ignored, especially when shaping the idea of what love is. We’ve seen Anna sing about feeling gassy and we know what she looks like in the morning. And based on what Kristoff says, he may have an appetite for things he finds in his nose. Neither of these characters is perfect. But that’s ok, as the story leaves off with what feels like the start of a relationship, as opposed to an unrealistic shiny promise of a flawless forever, and I kind of love that.

Given how much emphasis Disney has placed on love in their stories throughout the history of their films, it’s refreshing and exciting to see their princess films beginning to portray love in a way that’s a little more evolved and relatable, while still maintaining a storybook tone. It’s one more reason to celebrate Frozen as part of a new era for Disney Animation.

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