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How ‘Osmosis Jones’ Ended Up Teaching a Generation of Children About Germs

Chris Rock is more than just a stand-up comic — he’s also been America’s foremost educator on pathogens for almost 20 years

No disrespect to that eminent short king Dr. Fauci, but no matter how much he teaches us about germs, he’s still got nothing on Chris Rock. Since the release of Osmosis Jones in 2001, the movie has become a staple in grade school health classes, responsible for teaching kids about germs, how your immune system defends the body and how viruses spread. “Watching Osmosis Jones in Health Class Whenever You Had A Sub” is its own Reddit thread, and it remains a topic of discussion on Twitter, too:

If you’ve never seen Osmosis Jones, the movie is part live action, part cartoon. The live-action portions — directed by the Farrelly Brothers — star Bill Murray as an out-of-shape dad who cares little about his physical health while his daughter is trying to get him to change his ways. The cartoon parts star Chris Rock as a white blood cell and David Hyde Pierce as a cold pill, who pair up in their own buddy cop movie to take down a deadly virus that’s entered Murray’s system — a virus that he contracted by eating a hard-boiled egg that fell on the ground after he wrestled a chimpanzee for it.

While on the surface the movie is one-half Farrelly Brothers comedy and one-half buddy-cop cartoon, there does seem to be a good deal of thought put into the scientific aspects of the film. Eighth grade science teacher Corey Clendenin tells me that she shows her classes Osmosis Jones at the end of every school year, as an introduction to the biology that they’ll be learning in ninth grade. “With Osmosis Jones we can talk about viruses and bacteria and about white blood cells. One of the things they’re going to learn about in ninth grade is how viruses and bacteria are contracted and how the body fights these things off, which the movie covers on a basic level, so Osmosis Jones serves as a hook to introduce them to these topics and get them interested,” Clendenin says, adding, “The movie is also gross, and to eighth graders, that’s interesting.”

From there, her students do further research on infectious diseases. This seems to be fairly common for kids watching Osmosis Jones in school, as there are also numerous worksheets available for online purchase for teachers to use in class. For Clendenin, she says that she began showing the film about five years ago, but Osmosis Jones’ animation director, Tom Sito, tells me that he’d heard that people were using it as a teaching tool soon after its 2001 release.

Given its educational pervasiveness, it’s worth asking just how accurate Osmosis Jones actually is. Biology major Steven Zeko recently broke down the film for his film blog Steven’s Science in Cinema and found that it gets a lot right, but there could be problems if you look at it too deeply. Zeko tells me, “For younger kids, it does show the immune system in a non-complex light, because the immune system can get fairly complex.” As for what it gets right, Zeko says that it correctly illustrates how the immune system is our first line of defense against infection, which is shown by the title character’s investigation into the virus’ origin. By contrast, the cold pill in the film only looks to cure symptoms and not address the actual cause of the illness (just like real cold pills).

The film also has good messages about eating healthily and exercising, and explains that the body’s immune system can often harm the body by overreacting to an infection. There’s a nice detail about how the flu vaccine only protects against the flu as well (something our president apparently doesn’t understand, along with sarcasm and, well, everything).

This scientific accuracy was far from accidental. “We basically did it as an entertainment film, but our writer wanted to get the medical facts straight, so we consulted a number of people involved in health and biology whenever we’d run into an issue,” Sito explains. “For example, when we needed to find out how high a temperature could go before someone suffered from organ failure, we called some doctors to find out.” He and his fellow artists on the film also looked at images of cells and various parts of the body to inform the characters and the world they live in. 

But Zeko says that if you take the movie too literally you might have some misunderstandings about how the body works. For example, while the cold pill (Drix) originally just focuses on symptoms, he later decides to follow Osmosis Jones and look deeper into the infection, which, of course, a cold pill cannot do. Also, it would never be just one cell fighting the virus, as a whole host of cells would be attacking it. Zeko notes too that, in the movie, the virus tries to kill its host by turning up the body temperature, but in reality, the body would do that to fight a virus, not the virus itself. He similarly takes issue with the virus being represented by a single character. “In reality, it would take a great number of pathogens to cause an infection, not just one,” Zeko says.

While Sito says that he and his fellow filmmakers never intended for the film to be educational, he’s not that surprised by what it’s become, especially since he teaches animation at UCLA. “Because it speaks in the language of metaphor and in a simple graphic way, animation has a teaching ability where it can reach people much more readily than a dry documentary might. I remember for myself, when I was in second grade, I saw this video where Donald Duck explained how they make steel — I remember nothing from the second grade, but I remember how to make steel because Donald Duck told me.”

It seems that Osmosis Jones has had comparable staying power for those who saw it in school, as evidenced by a couple of my fellow MEL writers. For Magdalene Taylor, she tells me that from Osmosis Jones she learned that “the five-second rule doesn’t exist,” and that, “when a virus enters the body, the body deploys various methods to fight it.” For Joseph Longo, while he jokes that he “thinks of cells as individual Chris Rocks,” he adds, “I learned that we can’t control a lot of our body.” 

I showed my five-year-old the film last week, and I was impressed by what she picked up. For one, she learned that viruses “hurt the body” and that “the little blue thing [Osmosis Jones] tried to destroy the virus.” I was also able to relate it to all the germs I’ve been telling her about lately, which I found to be really helpful. I’d even go so far as to recommend it to other parents, as it might help to explain to your kids — in very basic terms — why they’re not in school right now

Or, at the very least, maybe they’ll remember what Twitter user Luke Dalley tells me has stuck with him after all these years: “The most important thing I learned about the human body from Osmosis Jones is that you shouldn’t eat an egg from a zoo enclosure,” which is, inarguably, a pretty important thing for kids to know.