The idea of a body being controlled by sentient, humanoid beings inside of it is by no means a unique concept. I was introduced to it through The Numbskulls in The Beano, where five figures in charge of a boy’s sight, smelling, hearing, tasting, and general actions were the main focus. Others have been through the more recent Inside Out and Cells at Work, with Pixar’s movie giving a heartfelt story driven by a young girl’s anthropomorphised emotions and the anime taking a more educational route and teaching what happens inside the body. And in 2001, I’m sure yet more were through the live action-animated hybrid Osmosis Jones.
That being said, I can’t be certain exactly how positive their induction into the concept generally was. The movie was a box office bomb, and also failed to perform well with critics who averaged around 5.5/10, according to Rotten Tomatoes. However, things aren’t as open and shut as they may seem. Some critics liked the film, with Roger Ebert giving it 3/4 stars, and it allegedly did well in terms of home media. Hopefully, after taking a 17 year long step back, it’ll be possible to work out what on earth was going on.
Osmosis Jones is a gross-out buddy cop movie which interprets the inner workings of a human body as a city, inhabited by anthropomorphic cells, germs, and viruses. The titular Osmosis Jones is a police officer in the City of Frank, a zookeeper with little respect for hygiene as shown when he eats a boiled egg that had been sucked on by a monkey and dropped in its cage. This introduces Thrax to his body, a virus with the intention to kill Frank fast enough to enter medical books. To avoid going to the hospital, Frank takes a cold pill that becomes anthropomorphised in his body and takes the name Drix. He and Osmosis get partnered up and have to use their respective skills to protect Frank from being killed, even if the rest of the police force and the mayor only concerned about reelection don’t believe them.
This is not a movie which fluidly integrates its live action and animated elements. The animation is strictly reserved for the world of the microbes, while everything on a human level is live action, with there being very little overlap between the two until the very end. As such, I feel it would be best to look at the shorter live action parts first. After all, finding the right director and actors for these was what ended up putting Osmosis Jones in development hell. These must have been seen as parts vital for the movie’s plot and success, especially with them settling on Bill Murray for the starring role of Frank. They end up being quite easily the worst part of the movie.
While the gross-out humour is present throughout the movie, it is at its most prominent in these sections. Every scene having Frank pull off some disgusting act, such as opening his mouth just to show a load of disgusting mush on his tongue. In fact, only two of these acts (eating a boiled egg that had been in a monkey’s mouth and dropped in its cage, bringing Thrax into his body, and throwing up all over his daughter’s teacher which led to the decline in Frank’s health standards) have any significant effect on the plot. And given how neither of these strictly require us to see what’s happening in the human world, having strong visuals on the inside, I struggle to see why the movie was put on hold just for the live action segments to be included. And while most of the actors are pretty good (especially Frank’s daughter, given her actress Elena Franklin was barely 13 by the film’s premiere), Bill Murray as Frank seems to be extremely unemotional, though I can easily chalk that up to just not having the material to work with. All in all, it just ends up being highly unpleasant. I ended up skipping through some scenes due to the unpleasantness of it, and doing that didn’t make me miss much.
But that’s enough about the live action sections. Let’s talk about what takes up the majority of the movie.
Unlike the other examples I named in the intro, Osmosis Jones isn’t driven by an exploration of what the inhabitants of the body do on a day to day basis. Instead it’s used more as a framing device, a way to make the buddy cop aspect less generic. It both succeeds and fails at this. The actual plot is almost indistinguishable from any other movie of the genre: A street-smart rebel cop get a booksmart partner, finding out a terrible plot that everyone else dismisses, before getting back together to save the day. Nothing you haven’t heard before. But it does allow for some imaginative imagery that sticks in the mind. Nerves are power lines and destroying the main nerve receptor causes the body’s leg to cramp, for example. The main goal of the villain is to destroy the entire city by killing Frank, and the reason Drix can be that smart but inexperienced cliche is because he’s literally a pill who came straight from the factory into Frank’s stomach. It’s all these touches, both to the setting and to the plot, which gives the film some staying power.
But while the setting assists the plot, it doesn’t really help the overall feel of the movie that much. This is primarily due to two factors. The first is that, for a comedy, it really wasn’t funny. Even setting aside the gross out humour, which could purely be a matter of taste, a lot of the humour boiled down to “It’s real life, but something’s related to something inside the body”, with the rest being practically nonsensical randomness. I only got one laugh throughout the movie due to that latter type, when Drix first enters the zit. The second is just how dark the movie is. As well as pushing the release date of the movie back in order to film the live action sequences, it was also mandated that the content of Osmosis Jones was cut so that it would fit a PG, rather than a PG-13, rating. This leads to plenty of horrifying imagery, especially when it comes to Thrax and his method of killing (the second example of which is shown on screen in its entirety). Given that some even more violent scenes were cut from the movie in order to earn its rating, it makes me wonder exactly what it could’ve been like. Maybe it would’ve been an even tougher watch, maybe it would’ve helped it stand out even more. I’ll leave it up to your discretion as to which is more likely.
That isn’t to say the movie isn’t without its strengths. Something that completely blindsided me was the music. While some of it just relatively unassuming background music, others I found myself noting and enjoying. Of particular note is the tune playing over the opening credits and the ‘Cool, Daddy Cool’ from inside the zit club personally, while ‘Take It to da House’ did end up charting in the US, even if only at 88. Also, Thrax is by far the greatest character here. None of the other characters are acted badly, but they’re all very generic to the point where those not in the principal cast just seem to meld together in my mind. And even with Osmosis and Drix, they are little more than the buddy cop cliches they represent, with the only interesting things about them coming from what they physically are in the body. Laurence Fishburne carries Thrax exceptionally well, giving him this suave manner for the most part which easily gives way for the unhinged psychopathy you’d expect from a killer virus. From the moment he appears, you see him as a genuine threat, something I was worried an otherwise poor movie wouldn’t be able to do.
Osmosis Jones was a movie that was undoubtedly worsened through executive demands, though exactly how much better it would’ve been is debatable. I strongly believe that, if they had just cut out the live action sequences, then the movie would be a lot stronger, with the unique setting making up for the unoriginal plot. As it stands, it gets bogged down with bad humour, a cast of mostly uninteresting characters, and Bill Murray trying and succeeding to make me feel disgusted. At least watching today it’s possible to skip forward.