The smoochy parables

Maggie Gallagher

4/10/2002 12:00:00 AM - 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.

Sheldon moves like a Christ wannabe in a comedic dark and corrupt world. Adults are not trustworthy. He and his TV producer fall in love over their shared childhood adoration for Rickets the Hippo, "The one face I could trust!" she confesses. The increasingly desperate, seemingly futile and heartbreaking efforts of a guy who is just a kids' TV-show host to protect children from everything from tropical oils to child abuse culminates in the anthem to end all children's anthems. "My Stepdad's Not Mean, He's Adjusting." See it for every happy song you have ever heard "Sesame Street" sing your toddler about the wonders of family diversity: "Not quite a dad or a brother -- Yes he gets cross, but he's the boss!"

"Stepdads are like puppies," he reassures the kids. They just need time adjust. "BUT REMEMBER: If he is EVER abusive to you or Mom, what is the magic number?" Kids shout out: "9-1-1."

Those of us who remember Robin Williams' happy divorce talk at the end of "Mrs. Doubtfire" will be tempted to exclaim: You've come a long way, baby.

"Death to Smoochy" is only a humorous Hollywood film, with cartoon villains and slapshot comedy. But what makes it funny is the dead-on shot it takes at a society where too many adults see protecting the kids as someone else's job. And the too many of us also tempted to believe that grit, corruption and despair are somehow more authentic, more interesting, more real than faith, hope and charity.