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A post mortem of The Lone Ranger

Updated on August 26, 2013
The Lone Ranger and Tonto ride together.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto ride together.
The train wreck scene at the end of The Lone Ranger was very much like the one at the beginning of Toy Story 3.
The train wreck scene at the end of The Lone Ranger was very much like the one at the beginning of Toy Story 3.
The train wreck scene at the beginning of Toy Story 3 was very much like the one at the end of The Lone Ranger.
The train wreck scene at the beginning of Toy Story 3 was very much like the one at the end of The Lone Ranger.
Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger.
Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger.
Johnny Depp as Tonto.
Johnny Depp as Tonto.
Hi-Yo Silver, away!
Hi-Yo Silver, away!

I had been waiting for this moment for 11 years, nearly a fourth of my life.

Much longer than Johnny Depp had considered playing Tonto, I had been watching and reporting very carefully the journey of a Lone Ranger movie through Hollywood’s development hell. For nine years I filled the pages of The Silver Bullet newsletter for The Lone Ranger Fan Club with stories and rumors about a new adventure for the Masked Man on the silver screen. Finally, after many starts and stops, roadblocks and broken dreams, I sat in a darkened theater with my family and watched this monumental milestone in my life gallop by larger than life for the next two and a half hours.

I was not disappointed. It was great! I loved it! I was very happy … and apparently very alone in my opinion. The critics hated it and moviegoers stayed away in droves. Why?

What went wrong?

There has been a lot of finger-pointing and second-guessing going on in the entertainment industry. How could a $250 million movie featuring one of the world’s biggest stars (Depp) made by one of the hottest Hollywood producers (Jerry Bruckheimer) and directors (Gore Verbinski) fail to make even half its cost at the box office? Their response was to shoot the messenger (the critics), but those shots were way off target. More on that later.

As one with deep interest and insight into not only this movie, but in the Lone Ranger in general, I think I have discovered some key reasons why Disney’s movie became a flop rather than the sequel-spinning tentpole it was meant to be.

Early signs of trouble

It was well publicized when Disney shut down production of the movie in the early stages when its budget reportedly skyrocketed past $250 million. Purportedly brought down to about $215 million after Bruckheimer and Depp took pay cuts, production rolled again. (It is widely held that the budget went back up to the $250 million range anyway.)

I don’t know if it was a cost-cutting measure or cold feet by Disney, but the movie was not filmed in 3-D, nor was it released domestically in IMAX (it did appear overseas in IMAX). A film the studio truly believes in and wants to make a franchise out of would have all three formats in its domestic release.

Another sign was the lousy merchandising. Aside from the few Lego sets, it was almost impossible to find new Lone Ranger items outside a Disney Store. What few products did come out were either cheesy, expensive or both.

Disney also bookended The Lone Ranger with Monsters University and Planes, both of which drew the families and younger audiences away. Ironically, The Lone Ranger opened up against Despicable Me 2 by DreamWorks, which also owns the rights to the Lone Ranger character. DreamWorks has a vested interest in its success, and killed it.

As for he movie itself

First of all, it did not truly respect the source material. Sure, it had the black mask, white hat, white stallion, silver bullets and all the other trappings that identify it as The Lone Ranger, but the moviemakers failed to understand the character of the character. Depp was so obsessed with making Tonto politically correct that he made The Lone Ranger blatantly wrong.

Although made by the Pirates of the Caribbean team, the formula used to make those movies should not have been applied to The Lone Ranger. Pirates of the Caribbean was a weird world of their own creation. The Lone Ranger is an established character with his own history. More than that, the character has a moral code of ethics and the character’s creators have strict guidelines for the Ranger and his behavior. That latter was promptly discarded by the Disney filmmakers.

Disney made the Lone Ranger a goofy greenhorn rather than a seasoned lawman. They changed the number of ambushed Rangers from six to seven, changed the name of Dan Reid’s wife from Linda to Rebecca, and they gave him one silver bullet, not his own silver mine. He drank booze (or at least tried to), killed outlaws (unintentionally), and tried to kill Butch Cavendish (but he was out of bullets). Those are out of character for the Lone Ranger and should have been out of the movie.

The script relied heavily on elements from The Legend of The Lone Ranger and the 2003 WB television movie The Lone Ranger, which are considered major flops and very poor source material. Both changed Reid from a Texas Ranger to a lawyer, and that should never have been the case.

Secondly – and perhaps the greatest mistake – is Johnny Depp. Even discounting the controversy over a white man playing an Indian, he made Tonto something he was not. When the first image of Depp in the face paint and dead crow headband came out, it was clear that the actor was up to his tired, old tricks. Covering his face in makeup, putting on a weird wig and goofy hat may have worked for him in the past (Pirates of the Caribbean, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland), but not this time. (Oh, and Johnny, please stop licking things. It’s no longer funny.)

Thirdly, there should not be any supernatural elements in The Lone Ranger. The scenes with the rabid, carnivorous rabbits and the part with Silver standing in the tree could have been cut completely and the movie would have been better, not worse. There was also spiritual overkill in the movie. Tonto the spirit warrior. John Reid the spirit walker. The spirit platform. The spirit horse. Too many spirits and not enough reality.

Fourthly – and speaking of spirituality – the movie blatantly bashed Christianity. The Lone Ranger is supposed to be a God-fearing protestant who is frequently in the company of Catholic priests and missionaries. The Christians in the movie were made out to be puritan lunatics. Reid so much as denounced the faith when he told the woman on the train that John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government was his Bible. One of the things that attract Christians to The Lone Ranger is his moral center. This just slapped them in the face. That’s not what you want to do with a core part of your audience.

Lastly, we’ve seen that gag before. Seeing Silver drinking booze from bottles is not only out of character for the horse, but the writing team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio borrowed a page from their own works. In The Legend of Zorro, the horse also picks up bottles and guzzles away. The same goes for the whole horse-on-the-train bit with the same movie. With a little examination, you can see that Elliott and Rossio used many variations on a theme from their own works and produced little original content. There are many other stunts and gags in the movie that are far from original. For example, the blown-up bridge and crashing train was nearly identical to the opening sequence in Disney’s Toy Story 3.

Promotional gaffes

When the team began its promotional tour for the movie, all they could talk about was what a hard time they had making it. The overall tone was negative. That changed as time went on, but by then the damage was done. When it came to publicity, the movie got two national magazine covers, and one of those was for a story about Johnny Depp and had almost nothing to do with the movie. I expected there to be fast food restaurant toys with kids meals, but Monsters, Despicable Me, and Smurfs took care of that. The same went for big displays at toy stores and department stores. Even the Disney Store gave The Lone Ranger the back seat. Subway did a promotional tie-in, but it did not involve toys. Other than the new Disney Infinity, there were no video games to buy.

Once the movie became a critical train wreck, Bruckheimer, Depp, Hammer and Verbinski began blaming the critics for killing the movie. If it had gotten good reviews, they would have called it “buzz” and would have shared the news. Since it wasn’t buzz, they just shot the messenger. Not cool.

If it’s so bad, why did you like it?

Good question. For all of its flaws, it did do many things right. Mostly, it was entertaining. Lots of action, comedy and suspense kept the viewer riveted throughout most of the film. This movie was a lot more exciting to watch than anything that has been done with The Lone Ranger in half a century. One could argue that it is the most exciting Lone Ranger adventure ever made, but that’s a different discussion for a different day.

After three viewings of the movie, I find that I like it better and better all the time. What sealed it for me, however, was when my own children asked to see it again because they liked it so much despite dad’s interest in it.

All said, the movie is fun. Even in its irreverence to the source material, you couldn’t help but laugh and cheer. When the William Tell Overture kicked in, it gave me goose bumps. It’s those things that make movies worth seeing.

Can this franchise be saved?

There are other film franchises out there that flopped but got a second chance. Star Trek did it twice, once after Star Trek: The Motion Picture and again with the franchise reboot after the last few films with The Next Generation cast. Hulk gave way to The Incredible Hulk. Many moderately successful movies have generated wildly successful sequels, including Spider-Man, Batman Begins, A Fistful of Dollars (and For a Few Dollars More), Alien, etc.

The Lone Ranger can certainly be redone better and cheaper. There is no need to retell the origin story. A well-written story with a much smaller budget could do wonders and still make The Lone Ranger a popular Disney franchise like it was originally intended. Maybe it would work as a television show or miniseries with a new cast rather than another movie. I sincerely hope Disney doesn’t give up on The Lone Ranger. That would be a missed opportunity of epic proportions.


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      Matt 4 years ago

      I DID NOT like the movie at all and thought it very disrespectful to the character of the Ranger. But with that said, I DID like your article. Very well done Sir.