It's the flopstones as film hits the yabba-dabba-doo-doo: Phil Reeves in Los Angeles reports on the US critics' clubbing of 'The Flintstones'

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PARENTS, pray that this summer is not wet. Hollywood's effort to cash in on the school holiday market by turning The Flintstones, the cartoon sitcom about cave people, into a flesh-and-blood blockbuster appears to have got off to . . . well, a rocky start.

And if you think that that pun is feeble, it doesn't compare with the flood of neanderthal humour that has flowed from the pens of American critics, some of whom have panned the movie, which opened across the United States on Friday and will open in Britain on 22 July.

'The Flintstones is a lot of Yabba-Dabba-Doo-Doo,' wrote Newsweek magazine's reviewer in an article headlined 'Hollywood Hits Rock Bottom'.

'A Yabba-Dabba-Don't', the USA Today newspaper advised its readers, describing the script as 'as dusty as an excavated bone'.

The Los Angeles Daily News summed it up with 'Eurocka] It's perfect for bronto-brains'.

Such criticisms will disappoint those who had a hand in the film, including Steven Spielberg (or, as the credits put it, 'Spielrock'), whose Amblin Entertainment produced it in collaboration with MCA/Universal.

The barbs are even more surprising given the effort that went into the script. Thirty-two writers were involved in round-table brain-storming sessions as the story went through draft after draft before a finished version was accepted. This technique is widely used in television comedy, but is less common in movies. In this case the result - according to the more damning reviews - is a thin plot stretched over a pile of relentless Stone Age jokes and saved only by impressive special effects.

A taster: the film is set in 'Bedrock', a town which claims to have been 'First With Fire'; petrol for the pedal-powered cars comes from a Chevrock station; news is distributed by CNN - the Cave News Network; the trendier knuckle-scrapers dine at Roc Donalds ('Over 18 Dozen Sold'). Rubbish generated in Stone Age suburbia is devoured by the pigasaurus, a garbage-devouring animal which resides under the sink. John Goodman, of Roseanne fame, makes a grand, bland flat-footed Fred. And, word has it, Rosie O'Donnell does a good Betty giggle. That's about it.

Into the midst of all this wafts Elizabeth Taylor, who has a cameo role as Pearl Slaghoople, Fred's mother-in-law. Despite her delicate health, Ms Taylor spent five days on the set last July, clad in a leopard-spotted shawl (and fake bone earrings). She reportedly accepted the part only after the makers agreed to stage a gala premiere in New York and give the proceeds to her Aids foundation.

Money will not just be made from the film alone, but also from a huge marketing spin-off. About 1,000 products are flooding the market - video games, posters, satchels, biscuits, talking Fred dolls, watches, pillowcases, baseball caps and more.

Plans are afoot to ship millions of items to Britain and elsewhere in advance of overseas openings. The ultimate aim is to sell dollars 1bn of Flintstone paraphernalia.

The film is based on the Hanna-Barbera cartoon first launched in the US in the early Sixties and eventually syndicated to more than 85 countries worldwide. Its success means that the globe is populated with thirtysomethings and their children (weaned on reruns) who are familiar with Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Unfortunately, this cultural inheritance comes with an indelible mental imprint of that theme tune, 'Flintstones] Meet the Flintstones'.

This broad appeal, with its prospect of vast worldwide sales, made a Flintstones film an irresistible proposition to Hollywood - albeit an expensive one. At about dollars 45m, the movie, which has been on the blocks for at least three years, cost more than dollars 10m more than the average Hollywood film. To help boost sales the makers, who were responsible for last year's heavily hyped but hugely profitable Jurassic Park have embarked on a major promotional campaign.

TV and radio stations in the US are currently churning out Flintstone advertisements. Just how successful the movie and the marketing paraphernalia will be remains to be seen. Certainly, there is plenty of goodwill towards The Flintstones - at least in the US where cartoon characters are these days being described as 'cultural icons'. For weeks, trailers for the film have met with applause from cinema audiences who sing along with the theme music.

But not every cartoon has made a successful live-action movie. Witness, for example, the way in which Popeye (1980) and last year's Dennis the Menace fizzled into obscurity. John Goodman recently remarked: 'We had a lot of fun making the movie but, to be honest, it wasn't much of a challenge. I'm not saying it was a no-brainer - but it was close.' Judging by this weekend's response, some would say he summed up the finished product (one feels obliged to have a go) yabba-dabba-dead right.