Like the human body it imagines as a sprawling metropolis, “Osmosis Jones” has some precincts operating at peak efficiency, and others in need of urban renewal. “Jones” has the Farrelly brothers filming the exterior world of a man whose ideas on nutrition seem to have been developed in a fast food drive-through, while animators Piet Kroon and Tom Sito conceived the man’s innards as a gloppy, rainbow-hued universe in which every cell has a name and a past. The idea of writer Marc Hyman, pic reps the most extensive interplay of live action and animation since “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Fortunately, the idea that we’re the sum of our biology and chemistry dominates, since the outer comedy is pale and anemic compared to the imaginative synapses firing inside. Summer audiences hungry for originality with a family-friendly rating attached will play right into pic’s hands from opening until the inevitable DVD special edition.
The Farrellys’ past R-rated gross-out hits would seem to make them impervious to being upstaged, but that is precisely what happens in a movie in which the body’s inner workings become a vast cartoon-scape of endless possibilities and puns, the place where hip-hop meets cool mid-century modern.
While the mundane universe of widower Frank (Bill Murray), who works as a laborer in a zoo, is sparked only by his precocious young daughter Shane (Elena Franklin), little that happens in this real world is affecting, funny or touching.
Frank is already living in the high-cholesterol district, but as he clowns around with Shane and a chimp in the first scene, he pushes things too far when he gulps down an egg that has been in the chimp’s mouth and on the ground. Following the egg, we travel through the mouth, where Osmosis Jones (Chris Rock), a cocky renegade white blood cell cop immediately senses trouble and zaps several pesky germs.
Frank’s yawn, though, sends Osmosis and his copter pilot into the downtown sector of the City of Frank, a place where the stomach functions like an international airport. A missed shot by Osmosis hits the nervous system (depicted as an electric power grid), setting off painful cramps in Frank. The real danger lurks in the dangerous gum area, though, as scrubbing cells are wiped out by a fiery red menace named Thrax (Laurence Fishburne).
In Cerebellum Hall, Mayor Phlegmming (William Shatner) is trying to mollify any suggestions made by his political opponents, such as Tom Colonic (Ron Howard), that the City of Frank has been allowed to turn into a sewage pile of fatty waste. Hizzoner’s assistant Leah (Brandy Norwood) has one eye on keeping her boss honest, and another on Osmosis.From his brain, Frank can hear the Mayor’s advice, which right now is to take a cold pill in the form of Drixenol, or Drix (David Hyde Pierce), an upright mechanical enforcer whose 12-hour time-release mode keeps him on a strict schedule. Osmosis is assigned to accompany Drix, and the outlines of the basic buddy-cop movie are clearly laid out.
Underneath the formulaics, though, is an endlessly witty spoof of biology, in which Thrax can venture to the arm pit (a hairy hangout for organized crime types) or the dry, brittle zone of an ingrown toenail to recruit allies for his planned fatal attack on Frank. True to genre, Osmosis can convince no one upstairs of the threat he detects except the always ready-and-able Drix, as they proceed through such ‘hoods as the Lower East Backside and the Zit Club for clues.
With all of this going on, it may be no wonder that Frank’s morose existence on the outside has all the verve of moldy fries. But the Farrellys pile one strikingly unfunny bit on another — and they are not helped by the monumentally uninspired support of Molly Shannon as Shane’s science teacher and Chris Elliott as Frank’s beer-guzzling co-worker Bob.
Murray has caught the mirthless bug as well: It’s a performance as one unending, boring gut pain, killing Murray’s usual orchestrations of sly self-irony.
Indeed, the only human who raises the emotional stakes, when Frank’s temperature rises above 106 degrees, is Franklin’s Shane, who breaks out in what turn out to be life-saving tears over the dying Frank in the hospital. Pic reaches a perfect balance of live action and animation at this point, when Osmosis makes a final heroic spurt to kill off Thrax, who tries to flee and get inside Shane’s eye. (After this, false eyelashes will never look the same.)
Rock’s scratchy, high-pitched voice is a bit hard to hear at first, and he’s never in the same vocal league as Hyde Pierce, who finally gets his chance to play macho, and the stentorian Fishburne, who finally gets his chance to act in animation. But Rock and Osmosis eventually become one, a creation elastic enough to accompany Rock’s irrepressible urges to improvise and verbally scat.
Norwood, as Osmosis’ would-be flame, doesn’t quite vocally match the leggy, sexy woman cell standing before us. Shatner, and especially Howard in a brief, brilliant send-up of American TV politics, add grown-up flavors to a mixture customized for but not restricted to kids.
Most refreshing of all is the decision by veteran animators Kroon and Sito to allow traditionally drawn figures and objects to take center stage. A soupcon of digitally generated animation augments the elaborate conception of the City of Frank, but the fluid hand-drawing is the star, and proves incredibly pleasurable after the stolid literalism of such recent animated creations as “Atlantis.”
The fusion of Osmosis’ hip-hop stylings with the City’s look — call it gut-level Palm Springs Modern — is a canny, all-American master stroke.
Soundtrack is much less well-balanced, spilling over excessively with rap-tinged tunes that essentially swamp Randy Edelman’s standard score.