One of the most mystical films I’ve seen, again, recently is Disney’s Frozen II, the screenplay being written by Jennifer Lee, who also co-directed the film with Chris Buck. Mystical themes are present in most films, because many follow the pattern of the Hero’s Journey. That archetypal adventure is full of mysticism, as mythologist Joseph Campbell so thoroughly described, portraying the common spiritual path of human life and human nature through innumerable symbols, metaphors, allegories, and myths, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
In the Hero’s Journey, someone feels called to explore beyond the boundaries of the known world, leaving behind their community and identity, descending into Hades, into darkness, into the abyss, where they are confronted by tremendous challenges and obstacles of all kinds, coming close to death, and sometimes even dying. But then they are reborn, resurrected/reincarnated, awakened, come into new light, revelation and wisdom, and they are personally transformed or transfigured into someone new, bringing back their newfound gifts to share with the community.
But Frozen II is especially mystical, not only following this pattern of the Hero’s Journey closely, but also using some of the most traditional spiritual and mystical symbolism in history. It’s themes, events, symbols, are some of the most explicitly mystical I’ve seen in a Disney film, or in any film, and so I’d like to enumerate them and discuss them. This will be a multi-part review of the mysticism in Frozen II.
The Opening Myth
The movie opens with King Agnarr, young Anna and Elsa’s father, telling them a bedtime story, the movie’s own kind of “creation myth” or Genesis story, about an old enchanted forest in the North where the Northuldra people live. This forest was protected by powerful “spirits,” represented by standing stones, and associated with the primary elements (traditionally there are five of them, so we know one is missing). The Northuldra people were an indigenous people deeply connected to the land and nature, being mystically in harmony with nature such that it almost seemed to move with them and for them. One particular spirit that is introduced is the “Wind.”
At first it seems like the kingdom of Arendelle and the Northuldra people will be friendly and peaceful with each other. But something goes wrong, there is an offense, a breaking of trust, a Fall from that peaceful paradise, plunging them into a divisive war with each other, separating them, bringing darkness, death and destruction. The spirits are angered, and it seems like nature herself turns against the people. Young Agnarr is injured, but is saved by someone with a heavenly voice. The spirits seemed to vanish (ending the enchantment?), and a smoky mist or cloud covered the forest, keeping out all people.
There are plenty of spiritual/mystical connections in this opening myth, including the myth itself, the forest, the standing stones, the elements, the connection to nature, and the spirit as “wind,” the Fall, the division, the saving and singing voice, and the dark cloud that descends on the forest. Myths have been the way mystical ideas have often been transmitted through time, deep spiritual ideas being framed into symbols, characters, events, etc. The “forest” has traditionally been used in folklore and mythology as a place of mystery, of adventure, being called into its depths to discover new paths.
The standing stones recalls Stonehenge and many other henges, which were thought to be anciently a kind of sacred space, a temple (as the standing stone of Jacob in Genesis 28:18), a place where people could reconnect to the larger reality of the cosmos, even with God or the Divine. The primary elements have often been viewed in history as the ultimate building blocks of nature, the source and origin of all things. And nature has been revered for millennia as a divinity, as sacred, as seen in Taoism and the nature mystics.
And the word spirit has deep connections with the ideas of “wind,” of the life-giving “breath,” of the animating force of all nature. Even Jesus used the mystical connection between the words “wind” and the “spirit” when he told Nicodemus that we must be born again,
The wind (pneuma) blows (pnei) wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (Pneumatos).-John 3:8
I won’t go into depth here about this scripture, but I suggest it is talking about the freedom of the Spirit, the unknowing that is present in it (an unknowing that will appear again soon in the film), the uncontrolled nature of it, it being beyond our egos, of being able to intuit it (“hear it”) but not know it in the traditional sense (“cannot tell”), and of our oneness in that Spirit. Jesus seems to be saying that when we are reborn we recognize ourselves as that Spirit itself. We are One with this divinity. This oneness of the Self with the Spirit is a theme that will show up powerfully later in the film.
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The idea of salvation shows up in this opening myth as well, being saved by someone or something mysterious, something unknown or perhaps unknowable, being unsure or uncertain as to who it could be. The singing voice that seems to save him is intriguingly singing the four-note ancient Christian Latin sequence Dies irae, literally meaning “the Day of Wrath,” which symbolizes danger, death, destruction, the day of judgement, and the end of the world. But it is sung in the style of the ancient Scandinavian kulning, or herding call, to call in livestock from the mountain pastures. So here we have this combined theme of someone both hearing a call or being called back into reconciliation (which will show up again soon for Elsa), but also of an apocalypse, of something wrong, of impending danger. It is a brilliant positive and a negative being combined into one, a collision of opposites, a kind of coincidentia oppositorum, which is pervasive in mysticism.
Finally, there is the idea of the enchanted forest being covered by a dark cloud, by a mist, which conceals it. This idea of concealing, of secrecy, of hiddenness, of mystery, is very mystical in nature, and is where the word itself comes from. It goes back at least to Moses and the “dark cloud” or “thick darkness” that was present on Mount Sinai when Moses went there to converse with God (Exodus 19:9, 19:16, 24:15-16, 34:5). It shows up again later in the pillar of cloud that descended on the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 13:21, 33:9-10). On the Mount of Transfiguration, there was a bright cloud, and a Divine voice coming from out of the cloud (Mark 9:7). It shows up again in Christian mysticism in the 14th century anonymous book The Cloud of Unknowing. Even in my former religious tradition of Mormonism, Joseph Smith passed through a “thick darkness” before he saw the light of God in his First Vision (JS-H 1:15; in one account it is also called a “dark cloud”).
Again, this theme of “unknowing” will appear central in Frozen II, and the environment presented in the film of taking place mostly within that “cloud” of the enchanted forest really emphasizes this mysticism. The mysticism of the dark cloud its tied to encounters with spirits, with the Divine, with the Great Mystery, with the unknowability of God, of transcending thought and intellect, of God being shrouded behind a veil.
What is the great secret? What is being hidden behind that veil? We’ll continue to explore these themes in Frozen II in the next article.