Mild spoilers for the movie Soul ahead:
Everyone is talking about Soul. The Pixar movie, released Dec. 25, 2020, is the first Black-led Pixar movie in the company’s 25 years of making films. It’s been lauded by critics for its messaging and direction, as well as criticized for its depictions of Blackness, mainly the fact that much of the film depicts its Black protagonist as either a blue soul or a cat (both of the writers credited on the project are white).
But too few people seem to be discussing the portrayal of mental health in the movie.
The movie’s protagonist Joe (Jamie Foxx) and the soul he befriends called 22 (Tina Fey) take us to part of the “Great Before” in which humans are lost, either because they are “in the zone” or as “lost souls.” Being “in the zone” is when a human is so into their art — be it anything from music to searching for gold coins on the beach — that they enter into this realm. “Lost souls,” on the other hand, are the former with a twist. They have become so all-consumed by obsession that they cannot find their way back to what made them happy in the first place.
Moonwind (Graham Norton) acts as Joe and 22’s guide, and the viewer’s. He explains that these lost souls are depressed or obsessed, and for me as a viewer with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, this resonated.
So rarely do we see mental health discussed in children’s movies. Just over a year ago, I was blown away by Frozen II’s portrayal of depression. Toward the end of the film (spoilers ahead!), when Anna (Kristen Bell) believes that Elsa (Idina Menzel) has died, she sings, “The life I knew is over; the lights are out. Hello darkness, I am ready to succumb.” To see this as a child would have absolutely made me feel seen, and less alone. The movie says it is okay to feel this way, and that even princesses struggle with depression.
OCD is even less often portrayed in media, children’s film or not. The first time I saw a portrayal of OCD in any form was watching Monk, a show from the 2000s about a detective with OCD. Monk (Tony Shalhoub) bounces back and forth from silly to brilliant, but we never truly understand the depth of what OCD can do to a person. At the time, this was all I had, and I couldn’t see myself in it at all.
John Green’s 2017 novel Turtles All The Way Down changed the game for me. I had never seen OCD depicted as so violent, so raw, and so real as in that book, and part of it, I believe, is that Green himself has OCD. I’m not generally a Green fan (no offense to diehard The Fault In Our Stars stans), but this book made me feel understood.
Even for me, an adult who has come a long way in her mental health journey, seeing such a portrayal in Soul felt like hope. I couldn’t help but think of the children who may be dealing with depression or OCD now, who may understand because of this film that they are not broken. Maybe they just need a little help finding their way back to whole.
Nicole Zelniker (she/her) is a writer, activist, and podcast producer at The Nasiona. Nicole is also the author of Mixed, a non-fiction book about race and mixed-race families, and Last Dance, a collection of short stories. Dress Rehearsal, another short fiction piece, appears in the award-nominated Nothing Without Us anthology. You can check out the rest of Nicole’s work at nicolezelniker.com and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Medium.