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‘Pokemon’ pic mania is on

H'w'd blvd. blocked off for pic's Mann's Chinese preem

Tom Cruise isn’t expected to show. Ditto, blessedly, for Jar Jar Binks.

But Saturday’s preem of Warner Bros.’ “Pokemon: The First Movie” at Mann’s Chinese Theater is generating about as much buzz as any 1999 movie event. Everyone who carries a lunch box or No. 2 pencil has simply got to be there.

“I don’t think any of us predicted it. Every week, this one has built to a new level of frenzy,” said Brad Ball, prexy of Warner Bros. domestic marketing.

A clear sign of that frenzy came Monday morning when the Warner Bros. switchboard took about 70,000 calls a minute after a televised offer for free tickets to Saturday’s 10:30 a.m. preem.

The flurry crashed the studio’s voice mail system, even affecting Burbank neighbors Disney and NBC. By 2 p.m. the studio was still getting 40,000 calls a minute.

Warner Bros. plans to have Hollywood Boulevard blocked off for the premiere, which will feature videogame contests and trading cards changing hands.

For the uninitiated, Pokemon is short for “pocket monsters.” It began in 1996 as a Nintendo videogame in Japan. In the game, players collect and train pet monsters, including Pikachu, a chubby cat- or mouse-like creature (depending on your viewpoint), and the pink furball Jigglypuff.

The 76-minute film, opening Wednesday, is paired with a 22-minute short called “Pikachu’s Vacation,” which introduces two new characters.

Sensing rising demand, Warners moved the pic up two days from its original Nov. 12 release date.

Then came toys, trading cards and other collectibles and a syndie TV series that debuted in the U.S. in 1998. It now airs on the WB net, an enticing bit of synergy for Time Warner.

The prime target is kids ages 8-11, but younger and older kids are also key. The TV show is also a hit for tots as young as 2.

Ball said the pic’s winning trait is its simple, unadorned charm.

“When everybody else zigs, this one zags,” Ball said. “It’s a whole different look.”

The Pokemon phenom heralds the start of the holiday animation race, with those two titles joining the part-animated “Stuart Little” and Miramax’s limited-release “Princess Mononoke,” also from Japan.

Disney will preem “Toy Story 2” at the El Capitan Theater the following Saturday. It opens Nov. 24.

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