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Right Time, Right Place for Rat Man?

"My cell phone plays the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra," brags Rat Man. It rings, and sure enough, in marches the orchestra to play a short allegro non troppo. Looking a little like Calvin in his "Stupendous Man" outfit, the dim-witted not-so-superhero is the protagonist of a much anticipated TV series (52x13), co-produced by public TV network RAI and Florence-based Stranimani, that will start airing Saturday mornings on RAI, it was announced during a press conference in Rome.

The battle of the cell phone features ends in a set-piece sci-fi spoof. Ever the dupe of the sinister conglomerate Fradulent Technologies, Rat Man wins again through plain dumb luck, ending up with a Holy Grail phone. For some reason, however, it can't put him in touch with the supreme being.

Rat Man was born as a comicbook in 1989, and now has outsold all superheroes in the Italian market since 2000, running between 30,000 to 40,000 copies for each printing. It does so through a corrosive and sophisticated wit, as well as some adult situations that are not ready for primetime. Ever wary of offending such a well-consolidated fan base, creator Leo Ortolani decided, along with RAI fiction producer Anita Romanelli, to write entirely new episodes instead of adapting the comicbooks.

Ortolani, with writers Marcello Cavalli and Michele Ampollini got to work and produced a series of crackin' scripts, which stimulated director Massimo Montigiani and his animation squad to add an endless assortment of sight gags. "Everybody gave their heart and soul to the project," Montigiani smiled, visibly proud of the work. "We played particular attention to the music and sound effects, going above and beyond what was necessary. The voice actors also seemed to enjoy themselves.

"We wasted time in the overdubbing sessions because the actors always wanted to see how the gag turned out -- once again," laughed Andrea Ward, dubbing director and the voice of Rat Man.

The new timeslot announced at 10:15 am, an indication of the importance that RAI places on the material (an initial 6:00 pm programming "experiment" with the series was deemed less than satisfactory). While some wonder how it will do as summer turns kids to other pursuits than television, the head of children's programming for RAI 2 is confident that RAT MAN will build a following. This, after all, is the timeslot, which another Italian export, WINX CLUB, rode to glory.

In fact, RAT MAN has few things in common with that tween girl franchise, but what it does have in common bodes well for its international distribution. It has no indications or cultural references that it is from Italy. In fact, the mayor of the "city with no name," where Rat Man lives, is Afro American.

There are other indicators, which give RAI and Stanimani hope for success with this franchise. "In our focus groups, RAT MAN did very well across the board with kids from 7 to 13 years old, and also in the 16 to adult group," says Massimiliano De Giovanni, president of Kappa Edizione strategic consultant for Stranimani. The golden ring of Italian animation has been, for years, to create a series that appeals to both adults and children.

Is this the start of another Italian export? Production sources were being coy, announcing only that Icon, a Spanish company, was dealing the international rights, and markets in two countries other than Italy had been locked down.

--Russell Bekins