For a very long time, I didn’t know that Death to Smoochy was supposed to be bad.
For me, Death to Smoochy was just a strange movie I liked, one that I never heard anyone talking about. I didn’t know it had been such a huge critical and commercial failure. And It’s interesting how much of a difference that ignorance made in my relationship to the film. It was never a guilty pleasure for me. It was just a strange little film that happened to match my sensibilities, one that I got to enjoy watching without any of the added baggage of what other people thought about it. I now get how it might have struggled to find an audience. It’s a really big swing of a film. It’s a high concept, silly, dark comedy set in a surprisingly violent world, played like an extended Mr. Show sketch, that also just so happens to be a film that is sincerely concerned with the importance of education and positive messaging in children’s television. Who is that for? Me, I guess.
The funny thing about Death to Smoochy is that it’s kind of a surrealist Frank Capra movie. It follows something awfully close to the plot of 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but instead of being set amongst the machinations of the U.S. Senate, Death to Smoochy is set in the dark and seedy world of children’s television production. In both films, a young idealist is unexpectedly plucked from obscurity, and installed into a position of great public importance, because the people making that decision believe someone so naive would be controllable in a way that will make it easy to protect the grift they’re engaged in. However, our hero’s idealism happens to resonate with the public far more than the backroom dealers anticipated, making this idealist more challenging to control than they would like, so his downfall is quickly orchestrated. The plan backfires, though. In the end, our hero is saved by the children who believed in him all along, and by a formerly cynical woman who had been reluctantly shepherding our hero through this new world up to now, and had her own faith and idealism restored by having met someone so sincerely noble. In the end, goodness triumphs over evil, paving the way for a brighter future for all, while the bad guys all get what they deserve. All that said, when you get into the finer details of tone and plot of these two films, they diverge about as wildly from one another as one could imagine. Spiritually, though, they’re so close to the same story that the resemblance feels like it has to be something more than an accident.
Death to Smoochy opens with a very brief flash-forward to what appears to be the murder of our titular hero, Smoochy the Rhino, in his costume, backstage at his show. Then, flashes back to the beginning of the story, where we see how a different beloved children’s television host, Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams), loses the job that will go on to become Smoochy’s. Randy is a beloved and popular host, but he gets busted in an undercover bribery sting in which he is found taking a suitcase full of cash in exchange for plum spots for children of parents desperate to see their kids on TV. To get over the scandal, the executives at his network, KidNet, need to immediately find a children’s entertainer who is, if nothing else, “Squeaky. Fucking. Clean!”; bringing them to Sheldon Mopes (Ed Norton) and his purple, foam-suit character, Smoochy the Rhino.
Like Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Sheldon Mopes seems like someone too good to be true, a “harmless, ethical cornball”. We meet him performing at the Coney Island Methadone Clinic, in costume and playing songs for the patients. It may seem at first that we’re seeing a struggling Sheldon, but even here Sheldon fully believes he is doing good and useful work. Nora Wells (Catherine Keener), a young executive hardened over the years from dealing with her cynical and duplicitous coworkers in the children’s entertainment industry, has been dispatched to find Sheldon and offer him his own show at KidNet. Over a dinner of organic gluten-free soy dogs, with his homemade spirulina and almond butter sauce, an elated Sheldon pitches Nora on the kind of show that he has always wanted to give kids: An educational and entertaining show, with integrity, and a positive message, but without all the overly-commercial “bells and whistles and ricketa-racketa.” Sheldon gets the job but is rudely awakened when he discovers that he and KidNet are not at all on the same page about how to educate children. What Nora and KidNet are looking for is someone who can capably fill a timeslot, but primarily they just want someone to bridge the gap between commercial breaks. Additionally, Sheldon discovers that there is an expectation from scary, local, mob-like charities, such as The Parade of Hope, that he will make himself available to perform for their charity events, which themselves are little more than vehicles for selling kids cheap toys and sugary snacks, while the organizers skim all the profits they can off the top.
As the film unfolds, the story turns ever darker as agents, executives, gangsters, and former kid show hosts, are all plotting to bring Sheldon down, even fatally if necessary. But, through it all, Sheldon perseveres, guided by an unwavering mission to help educate children. It’s this last bit that is the key feature of how a film like this works as much as it does. Whether it’s Frank Capra, Aaron Sorkin, or even Death to Smoochy, an audience will only forgive a message this schmaltzy, from a fundamentally good protagonist, if they really believe that the message is of actual importance. We can forgive some of the sentimentality and idealism of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or The American President, or Dave, because good government and selfless public service are evergreen things that people actually do want to see more of. We can forgive the uncomplicated goodness of a character like Sheldon Mopes, because we have no trouble accepting the importance of his mission to teach children in a loving way. The film also gives Sheldon more dimension than, say, a Mr. Rogers, which helps us better connect with him. We learn that Sheldon started on his path toward becoming Smoochy because of a court-ordered anger management class he had to take in college. We also see Sheldon pushed well past his breaking point, to a place where the audience could even accept him caving in to do a just but terrible thing, but he is fortunately rescued from the situation by his friends just in time. Sheldon isn’t perfect, but neither is anyone else. He’s doing his best every day and trying to teach kids how to do the same.
Tonally, the movie does get incredibly dark, but that helps underscore Sheldon’s message throughout. The thing he says the most often in the film is “You can’t change the world, but you can make a dent.” It’s meant to be a bit of a joke that Sheldon is initially performing at a methadone clinic, but they double down on the idea when that is the organization he ultimately chooses to donate all the proceeds from the charity ice show he ends up putting on himself. This helps underline the idea that literally everyone is worthy of a helping hand. Also, with Rainbow Randolph, It’s way over the top with the amount of awful things that he tries to do in order to bring down Sheldon, so much so that it does strain credulity when Randolph is redeemed and forgiven by the end of the film. Even the actual portrayal of Rainbow Randolph is frequently hard to take in the film because of how Robin Williams plays him, leaning into some of the more grating parts of his schtick from that era, particularly an uncomfortable amount of gay panic jokes. But all of that helps highlight the idea that anybody who is truly sorry, and sincerely tries to do better, is actually worthy of forgiveness, even someone as deplorable as Rainbow Randolph.
The core of Death to Smoochy, despite the numerous horrific people that populate its world, is about someone trying to do good in a world that can make that hard, while also advocating for something that does truly matter. In the long view, the lasting impact of a character like Smoochy, or the real world character he is meant to represent, is in teaching the next generation of children not to give in to darkness and to find a way to make their own dent in the world.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.