I need to apologize, you guys, because I think I really led you astray with my one-woman hype machine for The Lone Ranger. I’ve been writing for months that it looks super racist because of Johnny Depp‘s portrayal of a stereotypical Native American with the character Tonto, and I fear I may be the reason that Paula Deen and thousands of other racists across the nation rush from their homes to see this movie in theaters. But it comes out today and here’s the thing — it turns out even if you’re racist, you’re still not gonna enjoy this film. And here’s why: this movie doesn’t know its audience. It’s a Disney movie, written by Gore Verbinski, who has experience with both Disney and Johnny Depp from his work on the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. You’d think that that series would’ve been perfect training for this film, because they found a way to master being goofy in a way that was appealing to both kids and adults, but it’s like all that information flew out of everybody’s heads when they were making The Lone Ranger.
From an objective perspective, there’s a lot for a kid to love about this movie. It has nonrealistic, stereotypical main characters — Johnny as Tonto and Armie Hammer as John Reid, the Lone Ranger — who spend their time together bumbling into successes while taking multiple breaks for slapstick routines. It has a horse with magical abilities who rescues its hapless owners from certain death on multiple occasions and can maybe also fly and climb trees. It has an astounding lack of physics which allows said horse to leap from the tops of houses to the top of a moving train without missing a beat. And plus, it has pidgin English, which is always a rip-roaring good time, am I right?
But it also has things that are unmistakably targeted to an older crowd, like scenes of carnage between the settlers and the Comanches, where the guilt of the white man is spattered thickly over the corpses of the brutally mown-down Native Americans. In a meeting with Comanche leaders intended to prevent a war, the Native-American leaders refuse to extend their trust to John Reid, saying that all white men lie, but then tempering that very adult moment rich with generations of abuse and meaning with the throwaway line, “But what’s with the mask?” It also contains unexplained cannibalism, vivid deaths onscreen, and moments of suspense, all tastefully layered over sight gags and mugging for the audience.
In one scene in particular, while Tonto is pulling the Lone Ranger along the ground to safety, he lets his head drag through a pile of horse poop. Because kids love poop, right? And who would want to miss out on the moment when the Lone Ranger wakes up, touches the back of his own head, and smells his hand? Movie magic. It’s like the film never decided whether it wanted to make a statement or a joke, please the kid audience or bate the adult one, so it swung wildly back and forth and did neither.
The movie does make a half-hearted attempt to distance itself from the racism of Tonto by labeling Johnny Depp as a renegade Comanche who shouldn’t represent the beliefs or culture of his native tribe, but it’s heavy-handed. And of course there are the reminders of centuries of abuse at the hands of the whites, but those nods to history do little to excuse the fact that Tonto’s stilted speech is a lazy, stereotypical convention, and they ignored the opportunity to cast a Native American in the role of a Native American. But they get all the roles in Hollywood anyway, right? Let’s give a middle aged white guy a chance, for once. Ben Affleck knows what I’m saying. We all saw Argo.
I’d recommend against seeing it in theaters unless you’re a guilt-ridden racist with the tolerance for violence of an adult and an eight-year old’s appreciation of physics and fart jokes. So…like…a stand-up comedian, basically. You’re welcome, Disney, for finding your perfect audience.