Perhaps in recognition that Barney-bashing has become passé, the foul-mouthed comedy "Death to Smoochy" treats the hopelessly banal purple dinosaur as both a punching bag and a symbol of enduring virtue. There's as much gentle heroism as absurd piety in the willfully similar character of Smoochy, a fuchsia rhinoceros who rises to the top of the kid's-show heap after his predecessor -- a wickedly corrupt, funny-uncle type named Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) -- is caught accepting bribes from parents to put their kids on his program.
The pinch-hitting Smoochy is actually Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), an idealistic, New Age goody-goody plucked from obscurity to baby-sit all the good children out in TV land. (His previous gig: serenading the patients at a methadone clinic.) Mopes' clean-living lifestyle appears to protect his network bosses (Jon Stewart and Catherine Keener) from the taint of any further scandals, but the beleaguered Kidnet's troubles really begin when the well-meaning replacement falls in with a cadre of show-business snakes -- including a conniving talent agent (Danny DeVito, who also directed), an Irish crime boss (Pam Ferris) and a gravel-voiced charity mogul (Harvey Fierstein) whose moblike organization builds children's hospitals. This is not a crew to say "no" to. Nor is Mopes safe from the jealous Randolph, who will attempt any showy stunt he can think of to discredit the interloping Smoochy.
Norton plays Mopes like a young Fred Rogers, soft-spoken and full of life-affirming wisdom that's uproariously irrelevant in his new, big-bucks milieu. Williams' Randolph is harder to get a hold on: Renewing his love affair with sarcasm and irony, the actor cycles through so many dialects and frames of reference that it's difficult to determine which persona is supposed to be the genuine article.
The revenge plot carries more than a whiff of the Sideshow Bob-vs.-Bart battles on "The Simpsons." Though the gleefully coarse "Death to Smoochy" doesn't have the literate flow of said TV series, it gets by on its exemplary production design (the Kidnet sets and costumes are spot-on) and Bronx-cheering attitude. This isn't a film for fans of droll banter, but rather for people who think that hearing adults say words like "fuck" and "cock" in the presence of impressionable children is the height of comedy.
Not only do I agree, but I'm always glad when a movie steps up to do the job for the rest of us. That sort of thing can get you arrested if you're not careful.