The true hero of Death to Smoochy is, as it should be and rarely is, the screenwriter. Adam Resnick tips his Emmy-level days with "Larry Sanders" and "Late Night With David Letterman" with this impishly inventive little send-up of fear and loathing in kid-vid land.

Children's TV programming is pretty virgin turf for an intelligent takeoff, and Resnick goes at it like the Tasmanian devil, hitting and missing, always swinging. Beware that there are some off-center, deliciously malicious lines that make a beeline to the funny bone.

Smoochy--a puffy, fuchsia rhinoceros that will remind you of the benign dinosaur Barney--is the centerpiece for all the backstage backstabbing going on in the name of kiddie ratings. The man in the rhino suit is Sheldon Mopes, a squeaky-clean, New Age comedian plucked from obscurity (playing to hapless inhabitants of a Coney Island methadone clinic) to give a good name back to the suddenly sullied-with-scandal children's-television world.

The latest outrage is the pot of gold accumulated by Rainbow Randolph, a graft-ridden but high-rated kiddie-show favorite who takes bribes from parents to assure good camera placement for their children. When the tabloids get wind of this under the counter activity, it's the end of the Rainbow and the beginning of Smoochy.

Only Rainbow dies hard. In fact, Robin Williams plays him somewhere to the left of Wile E. Coyote, festering with unbridled (and always unrealized) malevolence. Edward Norton's goofily unperturbed (and always indestructible) demeanor is pure Roadrunner. The plotting-and-foiled-again structure of the story is predictable, but Resnick perks you up and gets his grown-up guffaws with wild dialogue he throws out with manic abandon.

Danny DeVito, who directed with funny bones firmly in his sight, contributes some on-camera fun as a conniving agent--one of several nasty individuals who inhabit TV kiddieland but otherwise are far removed from Fred Rogers' old neighborhood. The usually able Catherine Keener seems curiously at sea, if not miscast, as the shark-like programming executive (think Faye Dunaway without the bite), and Jon Stewart makes next-to-nothing of his weasely network president. Harvey Fierstein growls out a Godfather type effectively, but Michael Rispoli way overplays a punch-drunk fan (and, as it turns out, fatality). But even these roles are nicely peppered with hilarious lines.

In his previous films, Resnick has swung too low (Cabin Boy) and too high (Lucky Numbers). This time, with Death to Smoochy, he gets pretty darn close to a home run.

--Harry Haun