The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
'Death to Smoochy,'
and kill Barney, too


April 18, 2002
By Franklin Harris

I was going to leave this one alone. Why waste time telling people what a dreadful movie "Death to Smoochy" is when audiences are already staying away in droves?

Then a friend alerted me to an article by syndicated political columnist Maggie Gallagher.

"Quick, run to the theater and see 'Death to Smoochy' before it dies the death of a thousand critic bites," she writes.

Why is it that Gallagher wants people to see a film that Roger Ebert called "odd, inexplicable and unpleasant?"

It turns out that she loves "Death to Smoochy" for exactly the reasons that right-thinking people hate it.

She writes, "The film is a parody not of children's TV so much as the 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."

I'm 30 years old, and I still wake up on Saturday mornings in time to watch Bugs Bunny reruns, so you can't say I "hate children's TV." What I hate is contemporary children's TV, which is a different creature entirely.

But first, a bit about "Death to Smoochy" itself, which has slinked from most theaters but will make its presence felt on home video soon enough.

The film stars Robin Williams (remember when he was funny?) as a corrupt children's TV host who ends up jobless following a bribery scandal. Network executives, desperate for a squeaky-clean replacement, turn to Sheldon Mopes (played by Ed Norton), the alter ego of Smoochy the Rhino.

Smoochy is an obvious Barney clone. He does the same silly things and sings the same stupid songs.

Gallagher finds one song particularly endearing, "My Stepdad's Not Mean, He's Adjusting." Admittedly, the song is funny — it's the only funny joke in the movie — but only if you don't take it seriously.

The problem is that "Smoochy" takes everything seriously. Audiences walk in expecting a black comedy in which Williams plots his revenge against the saccharine dope who replaced him. What they get is a movie that takes Smoochy's side, with Williams ultimately finding "redemption" by saving Mopes from an assassin.

Smoochy is insufferable for exactly the same reason Barney and the Teletubbies are. He is earnest, humorless and self-important.

In the movie, Mopes speaks fondly of one of his heroes, Captain Kangaroo. But looking back at the Captain, we see how much children's TV has changed during the past 25 years.

Captain Kangaroo was never as earnest and self-important as Barney or Smoochy. Sure, the Captain told us to eat our vegetables and to brush our teeth and to do all of the other things Smoochy tells his viewers. But it's all in the presentation. The Captain wasn't above being on the receiving end of a joke. No matter what, Bunny Rabbit was going to steal the Captain's carrots, and Mr. Moose was going to get the drop on him with a shower of pingpong balls.

And the same is true for other past children's TV characters.

Big Bird never could remember poor, exasperated Mr. Hooper's name. And "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" wouldn't have been the same without misanthropes like Oscar the Grouch and J. Arthur Crank.

Today's sappy children's TV characters are idealized, lacking the imperfections that make human beings human. I still chuckle when I remember Captain Kangaroo telling Bunny Rabbit to "leave those carrots alone!" But who will laugh at remembering Barney sing "I Love You, You Love Me?"

Who will do anything but gag?

Death to Smoochy? Strap the sucker into the electric chair, I say. I'll throw the switch myself.

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