Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the generation-defining mobile video game Angry Birds was released late in 2009, with its international popularity peaking in 2010 and 2011. Five whole years after that, The Angry Birds Movie has finally shown up in theaters. The filmmakers forgot the first-rule of quickie cash-ins: they have to be QUICK - for example, today's subject.

Movies have been based on books, on plays, on other movies. Movies have been based on comic books, on magazine articles, on popular songs, on video games, on trading cards, on theme park rides, on corporate mascots, on toy lines.

But I can name nothing so hilariously desperate as the tiny subgenre of theatrically-released films based on greeting cards.

I mean, for Christ's sake. Who has that kind of attachment to the characters on greeting cards? This was the 1980s, though, and they were magically fucked up in exactly the right way for it to make some kind of drug-fueled sense for Hallmark Cards to kickstart a multimedia franchise in 1983, presumably in jealous response to American Greetings' tremendously popular and annoyingly enduring Care Bears.* It started off a series of cards - birthday cards, get-well-soon cards, motherfucking greeting cards - centered on Rainbow Brite, a magical girl who brought color and vitality to the world. From there, it was off to the races: a line of dolls, books, lunchboxes, the whole nine yards; a 1984 TV animated series that resulted in a whopping 13 half-hour episodes over the course of two years, and during the show's run, a feature film made by the same creative team, Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer, from the autumn of 1985, two years into the era that pop ephemera scholars refer to as the Britening, and if they don't then hopefully they will be encouraged to start.

You've got to give the film this much credit: it's an exemplar of the state of children's animation from that era if I ever saw one. Not a compliment, that. The film, and the series, were productions of DIC Entertainment, which if my memory of the 1980s holds up, was one of the three big names in making shitty cartoons for Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons, alongside Filmation and Sunbow Productions (the immortal Hanna-Barbera was at this point in a downslide, and Rankin/Bass was starting to close up shop, but each contributed one enduring series to the decade: The Smurfs and ThunderCats, respectively). All of the major productions made by all of these companies shared one critical trait: they were made to sell toys. And there were other commonalties, such as a weirdly prevailing focus on Heavy Metal-looking sci-fi worlds even where they didn't make sense, rigidly gendered color palettes and character types, and some of the most spectacularly bad animation ever produced for the commercial market. Much of the animation for U.S. TV was being done overseas, in France, Japan, and Korea, and all of it was repulsive. We have the privilege, in the 21st Century anglophonic world, of thinking of Japanese animation as a boutique product, with breathtaking designs and complex narratives and rich, painterly qualities. In the '80s, the stuff that was subcontracted by American producers was still utter garbage, desirable because it was cheap, and it was fast.

That trashiness is the most salient quality of Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer. It held, at the time of its release, the record for the fastest production of a feature-length animated film, three months start to finish, and there's not one single scene where that's hard to believe. Characters move with stiff, mechanical shifts in their rigid limbs. Expressions barely even flicker across the rounded baby doll face that virtually all of the sympathetic human characters share. Hair is a particular problem: the title character's ponytail is animated separately from the rest of her (standard stuff and ordinarily not worth dwelling on), and it's horrifyingly easy to tell that it's on a different cel from her head, with different color and lighting and clarity and everything. The worst thing of all is the mouth animation: even by the standards of Asian animation with post-dubbed English dialogue, there is rarely more than a passing connection between the movements of characters' jaws and the presence of words on the soundtrack.

But hell, three months. The fact that it's not just static drawings being shaken underneath the camera to simulate movement is already kind of of a miracle.

Anyway, it's just what the marketplace demanded: this, sadly, was what most animation shown in America that wasn't produced by Disney or the rogue ex-Disney rebel Don Bluth looked like in the '70s and '80s. Some of it was a bit better than Rainbow Brite: Sunbow's series were a giant step up from this, and Rankin/Bass had the good luck to work with Topcraft, the studio that seeded the future Studio Ghibli. A lot of it was worse: Filmation produced some outright monstrosities in the '80s, and the worst of Hanna-Barbera's late output is about on par with lower-tier war crimes. The point being, Rainbow Brite and Star Stealer is above all things, outrageously typical: the execs at Hallmark and DIC probably never even thought about the quality of the thing, because quality was simply not part of the vocabulary used to discuss animation in those days. Again, not unless you were Disney, and Disney itself was in a frenzied tailspin that only started to straighten out right about the time that Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer was being assembled.

Industrial crap for the purposes of brand extension; not much else needs to be said about the movie, except of course I really haven't even talked about it. But then, the creative aspect ought to be an afterthought, nest-ce pas? This was the fourth animated adventure for Rainbow Brite, following three TV specials in 1984 and '85, but the story by Howard R. Cohen & Jean Chalopin does a decent enough job of recapping, quickly, what we need to get by: there is a magical place called Rainbowland, and this is the home of Rainbow Brite ( Bettina Bush, going by simply "Bettina"), whose job it is to bring bright colors to the world when it gets gloomy and and downcast, often by appearing under the floating words "Get Well Soon" and "For a Special Girl Who's Turning 4". That latter part is more implied than exposited. It's the first day of spring, and Rainbow's horse Starlite is prancing around Rainbowland and waking everybody up, since apparently it is also the business of the Rainbowlanders to effect the change from winter to spring. By the way, everything that follows is lashed to a mid-continental northern hemisphere perspective, so the earth sciences folks should strap in before you get thrown right of the movie. See, this particular winter won't end, because something's going wrong with Spectra, the giant diamond through which all of the light in the universe is refracted, to give it color. I suppose I should have warned the physicists when I told the earth scientists to buckle up.

Rainbow is guided to Spectra by a robot horse with rocket legs named On-X (Pat Fraley), and I do get that I'm just spitting out words, but I really just want to get through this. Seems that all the sprites - little cotton ball people of some sort - on Spectra have been brainwashed and are covering the whole diamond-planet with a huge net that's dimming its light. That's just a side-effect; the actual goal is for Spectra to be dragged off to the private collection of the Princess (Rhonda Aldrich), a selfish, materialist young lady who lives in a factory-like castle that's coated in a thick layer of toxic-green menace, and who is dressed like she's playing the lead in a burlesque version of Working Girl. Rainbow's only ally in this battle is Krys (David Mendenhall), a magic space boy who has an instinctive loathing towards girls, a species he considers incapable of doing any real fighting. The partnership, naturally enough, is tense.

I confess to a certain sneaking affection for how idiotic all of that is. Animation in the '80s was ruthlessly policed by gender, and to all appearances, Rainbow Brite is a "girl" show; but so many of the trappings and set design is straight out of "boy" programs, and the film keeps anticipating, albeit in the vaguest way, the plot shapes of the following year's The Transformers: The Movie. It's not a perfect marriage of the two forms: it is in fact a fuckawful attempt to stitch irreconcilable tones together, but that at least gives it a kind of oddly sharpened edge, like when the power of rainbows is used to straight-up murder bad guys by turning them into pretty crystals. It's not good, but it's frantic, with the plot darting back and forth like a psychotic goldfish, and that's better than being boring, anyway.

All of it is terrible, of course: the writing is bafflingly nonsensical much of the time (e.g. the weather-crafting magic girl Stormy, voiced by Marissa Mendenhall, is sad that spring is coming because she does her best work in winter, and I have no clue what world produces more thunderstorms in winter than spring, but it's not mine), and of course it's often insipid. "Wake up flowers / I've been up for hours" hums the awful, awful Starlite in the opening musical number, which is both a gross rhyme and a lie: he was woken by a bee sting about 30 seconds prior. The little comic relief villain Murky (Peter Cullen, a god among voice actors, doing a whiny variant on Chris Latta's iconic Starscream from Transformers) is given all kinds of pointlessly mean insults to heap on his dimwitted monster lackey (Pat Fraley again), and if there's anything about the whole property that just fucking reeks of '80s animation, it's hearing a little green guy with a big nose calling a big brown guy with a big nose "banana brain" a propos of nothing.

I'd love to feint in the direction of scrounging up something charming about all of this, but other than the screaming madness of how it just leaps from diamond planets full of little fluffy slaves to a giant water wheel on the outside of a space-fortress, to the de rigueur final battle involving beams of light being used to blow up other beams of light (really, the whole thing feels like an '80s adventure cartoon Mad Libs oddly filled out with the story of a happy girl who shots out physically solid rainbows from her belt), there's precious damn little that's likable. In principle, I believe that I should be part of the nostalgic target audience for this (I don't recall if I watched the show, but I definitely had a Rainbow Brite stuffed doll), but visiting Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer as an adult is more the kind of thing that stabs nostalgia to death. than nurtures it. It is quite mindless in the way it barrels through its trippy space fantasy subplots, and I cannot emphasise enough that it is fucking ugly. There's a lot of complaining one can do about the state of American animation after the Disney Renaissance of the '90s, and Lord knows I do a lot of it, but it's incredibly rare that we get something this deep-down careless anymore, and there used to be a whole industrial sector producing this exact kind of dreck.

*To answer the question you're probably not asking: yes, I should really be reviewing The Care Bears Movie right now, but I've already seen that once as an adult, and not even for this blog will I re-watch it.