Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) is America's favourite children's entertainer thanks to the success of his television show which is broadcast throughout the land and is enormously lucrative for the TV network and for those companies producing spin off products. However, Randolph makes a big mistake when he accepts bribes from parents to give children on his show prominent positions in front of the cameras and he is caught in an F.B.I. set up that sees him lose his job, his fortune and his prestige. So who can the network go to now to bring in the all-important kids audience? TV executive Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) thinks she knows...
Yes, the man to step into Rainbow Randolph's dancing shoes is none other than Sheldon Mopes, played by Edward Norton, who goes by the alias Smoochy the Rhino. The world of kids' TV is ripe for satire, and Adam Resnick's script takes a cold look at the corrupt and immoral aspects of it, mostly through its cast firing off-colour one-liners at each other. But it's not all "Wouldn't it be funny if children's entertainers swore?" jokes, for as usual with Danny Devito-directed films there's a strong misanthropic strain running through the story.
Mopes is a right-on, idealistic fellow who believes he can make a difference in the big, bad world by singing his songs about social problems. Initially Nora finds him performing for bored drug addicts at a community centre, but she sees that he could be just the man they're looking for and after a quick interview, Smoochy is prepared to make his small screen debut, complete with new costume and all the showbiz glitz he could ever dream of. The film starts as a story for every adult who wanted to punch Barney the Dinosaur, but it's not long before Mopes becomes an unlikely hero.
Mopes may be starry-eyed, but he has a strong sense of right and wrong, so he can't help but emerge as the sympathetic lead character amongst the cynics that populate the plot everywhere else. This means that Smoochy's peace and love message, the one that carries the message to buy more merchandise, is taken seriously by the film, in spite of all the bad taste humour around it. As Smoochy's ratings go through the roof, Randolph plots his revenge, leading to some of the funniest sequences due to his efforts to discredit the entertainer just as the fallen star has been shamed.
That's not all, as Mopes struggles to keep control of his character in amongst the money men. And then there's organised crime to worry about, with gangsters demanding a cut of the proceeds and one Irish matriarch (Pam Ferris) seeing to it that dopey ex-boxer Spinner (Michael Rispoli) has a part in the show as a favour. There are numerous setbacks to Mopes career, not least when Randolph tricks him into looking like a Nazi and losing his contract, but he always wins through, and indeed it's Norton's way with keeping Mopes the right side of annoying that has him standing out against the broader performances.
Williams displays a feverish personality here, and while entertaining you can see why he isn't used more, while Keener plays her accustomed worldly and sardonic role with aplomb. And a neat running gag has ex-children's entertainers all hitting a pathetic downward spiral when they lose their jobs - could this be in Mopes' future? It's just that Death To Smoochy isn't as caustic as it thinks it is, you want more bite when it seems like it's been toned down - not too much, but enough to be only occasionally laugh out loud funny. It may end with Mopes' amusingly misjudged ice dance spectacular, but there's the suspicion you could get away with this in reality. What John Waters could do with such material! Music by David Newman.