Maggie Gallagher
Quick, run to the theater and see "Death to Smoochy" before it dies the death of a thousand critic bites. Roger Ebert gave it a major thumbs down: "In all the annals of the movies, few films have been this odd, inexplicable and unpleasant."

Odd, yes. I have never seen Hollywood make a movie like this. The film is a parody not of children's TV so much as people who hate children's TV -- an out-and-out attack on pseudo-sophisticates who despise the pretenses of adults that make childhood innocence possible. Call a movie like that "Death to Smoochy," slap on a well-deserved R rating (for sexual references, cartoon violence and profanity), and what do you expect? The people who show up to hoot at Barney's demise are bound to be sorely disappointed.

"Death to Smoochy" is the story of Sheldon Mopes (played by Ed Norton), a sappy children's entertainer called in to replace a corrupt clown (played by Robin Williams). Sheldon brings nothing to the table "except ethics," as one character puts it. Ethics and a purple rhino costume. He is the kind of guy who has a personal slogan -- "You can't change the world, but you can make a dent!" -- and a repertoire of homemade children's songs with a positive message: "Everything from the deliciousness of vegetables to the importance of donating plasma!" says Sheldon. He responds to the commercial pressures of kid TV with the earnestness of a saint: "The cookie song is nothing without the please and thank-you coda!"

You could see Sheldon as "a soul so cheerful, earnest, honest and uncomplicated you want to slap him," as Ebert puts it. But that is the great thing about Sheldon: He isn't naturally a sappy, cornball do-gooder; Sheldon actually chooses innocence over cynicism, and the protection of children over their commercial exploitation. But even Sheldon needs a little help from a college anger-management class. On a bad day, he is as tempted to blow away people who threaten him as any of us.

Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.