Disney's Touchstone Pictures put unprecedented effort into dubbing the French film "Little Indian, Big City" for a historic, wide release to 550 screens across the country last month.

It turned out to be a historic flop.

Rarely have the critics been so unequivocal. "This film has been dubbed into English so dreadfully that it becomes a discordant horror," complained the New York Times. "The yuks here come from pitiful attempts to synchronize the terse reading of the dubbers to the ooh-la-las babbling from the actors' lips," observed The Washington Post. Giving it two thumbs down, critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert screened footage on their television program to analyze the dubbing failure.

Audiences, which often pay no attention to the critics, this time agreed with their verdict. The movie, the story of a 13-year-old Amazon Indian taken to Paris by his long-lost father, earned just $500,000 in its opening week, instead of the projected $2 million to $3 million. Only the clout of Disney -- which sank $6 million into dubbing and marketing the film -- kept "Little Indian" in theaters for a second week, when it did $92,700 in business.

What happened? "Little Indian" was an experiment that failed. French filmmakers have long maintained that their films could win mass audiences in America, if only they were dubbed. Instead, Hollywood has generally opted to remake France's best efforts into big-budget projects with American stars.

When a bidding war broke out last year over the rights to remake "Little Indian," producer-star Thierry Lhermitte sold it to Touchstone on condition that the studio give the original a broad release.

There was reason to believe that it might work. One of France's biggest box office earners of all time -- raking in $60 million domestically -- "Little Indian" is geared to the much-coveted preteen audience. With viewers so young, subtitles were not feasible, and after test screenings of the dubbed version, the studio decided to go back and improve some of the voice-overs.

"I am very proud of the dubbing," says Lhermitte, who now has a deal to make four films with Motion Picture Corporation of America. "I'm not saying it {the dubbing} is not bothersome, that would be absurd. But our dubbing is the best that has ever been done. The writing was done by very talented Hollywood writers, the actors each performed wonderfully, the lip-syncing was worked to the maximum -- 10 years ago you couldn't have done this because of digital technology. I think we're at least as well dubbed as Babe.' "

Perhaps, except that pigs don't speak French. In any event, Lhermitte, who accompanied the film's testing in 12 cities where it got consistently high marks, concedes that the critics' response was a "cold shower." Disney and Touchstone officials wouldn't comment on the dubbing before the film's release, apparently because they wanted it to be presented as a regular movie. They also declined to comment after the film flopped.

It's clear that American audiences -- and critics -- are unaccustomed to the disconcerting experience of dubbed films, a practice common practically everywhere else in the world, except perhaps Great Britain. Understandably, studios have been reluctant to play the guinea pig; "Rumble in the Bronx," filmed in Chinese with Hong Kong star Jackie Chan, was dubbed and released in February but is mostly an action film; Miramax shelved "Les Visiteurs," a huge French hit, two years ago because the dubbing didn't work -- the film will finally be released with subtitles in June.

With the public's rejection of "Little Indian" in spite of heavy pre-release advertising, Hollywood will probably conclude that dubbed movies don't cut it in America.

That's just what the French are afraid of. "We have to rethink how to launch a French film that is not one of those cultural, intellectual pictures," says Maurice Leblond, the head of development and theatrical acquisitions for TF-1 International, the French company that bought the film from Lhermitte and sold it to Touchstone. "We are trying to enter a market where there is fierce competition. We have to carefully read the criticism and think about what can be learned from that."

For Disney the whole thing was a touchy business, since the studio wanted to recoup its investment in the original, but not preempt an audience for the remake, which will star Tim Allen and is slated for a $40 million budget.

Lhermitte is still trying to learn what he can from the experience. "The bottom line has to be that this is not the way to market the film, to pose as a big Disney film when people see a small French production," he says. On the other hand, he notes, "You don't take your kid to see The Lion King' with subtitles. There's no other solution." CAPTION: Ludwig Briand plays a boy raised in the rain forest and brought to Paris (where he ascends the Eiffel Tower the hard way) in "Little Indian, Big City."