Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Villain Spotlight: Jenner

In 1979, after his pitches were rejected at Disney where he was working as an animator, Don Bluth and a group of his fellow animators left Disney to form their own studio, Don Bluth Productions.  The studio is known for their unique animated films that often dealt with darker subject matter than Disney films.  An American Tail is a somewhat depressing story of the immigrant experience, beginning with an antisemitic raid by Cossacks on a Jewish Ukrainian village.  Once they flee to America they find their dreams of utopia are somewhat dashed by the terrible poverty the lower class immigrants live in in America and that the same prejudices are there as well.  All Dogs Go to Heaven is a heartwarming story of gambling addiction, smoking drinking, murder, and the soul's ultimate fate for heaven or hell.  It features some of the most disturbing images of demons and hell to be found in a children's movie.

Compared to those, their first film, released in 1982, is pretty mild.  The Secret of NIMH tells the story of a Mrs. Brisby, a widowed mother of three whose youngest son is suffering from pneumonia, who learns that the farm their home is on to be plowed early this year.  Moving her invalid son would risk his death, so she seeks the aid of the rats, a community of super smart rats that escaped from the National Institute of Mental Health, where they had endured horrible animal testing procedures until the late Jonathan Brisby figured out how to free them.  The moving of the house sets the stage for a political coup through sabotage, with the climax having multiple betrayals and three murders.  It's pretty standard children story stuff really.  The movie is based on a book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, although many changes were made.  In the book, the antagonist Jenner is barely mentioned as a traitor who had previously left the community.  In the movie, he is developed into a sinister, scheming villain with a violent streak.

The Villain

Jenner is one of the council leaders of the rats of NIMH.  He opposes the leadership of the ancient, mystical Nicodemus, who wants the rats to move away from the farm and be self-sufficient, instead of stealing from humans.  When Mrs. Brisby seeks their help, he sees the moving operation as an opportunity to rig an accident to kill of Nicodemus.  He sways the council to accept her request for help while conspiring with his henchman, Sullivan, another rat on the council who initially opposes her request - "Let the lower creatures fend for themselves".

Initially, Jenner is friendly and welcoming to Mrs. Brisby, promising his services to help her.  After he executes his plan to kill Nicodemus though - without the help of Sullivan, who backed out at the last moment - Mrs. Brisby warns the rats they need to follow Nicodemus's plan and leave the farm.  This enrages him, and seeing the stone medallion Nicodemus had given her, he attacks viciously.  Any calm and suave persona is dropped and he becomes a hungry animal.

"Take what you can, when you can."

A fight ensues between Jenner and the captain of the guards, Justin.  Sullivan betrays Jenner again by giving Justin a sword, and mortally wounded by Jenner.  Just before Jenner is able to deal Justin a killing blow though, Sullivan throws a dagger, striking him in the back, in a final betrayal.

Jenner makes a great villain for your RPG because he has a very clearly defined goal.  If the PCs are in a position to help that goal, he can be friendly and helpful to them, but his wrath is swift and frightening when it comes.  Sullivan is also a great reminder that even the henchmen are characters with motives and personality.  Sometimes the best way to defeat a villain might be to enlist a henchman who is not fully committed to the villainous ambitions.  Finally, Jenner's sword is unique in the film with its wavy edged blade.  That sword always struck me as something special, even though there was nothing magical about it.  It is tied to Jenner's identity to me though.  A good villain needs some memorable trait like that to stand out in your players' minds.

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