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What Went Wrong? The Good, The Bad & The Weird Of Disney’s ‘The Lone Ranger’

What Went Wrong? The Good, The Bad & The Weird Of Disney's 'The Lone Ranger'

Disney‘s “The Lone Ranger,” a lavish period epic directed by Gore Verbinski, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, had kind of a rough weekend. It began with an unprecedented critical pile-on (there have been some to leap to the film’s defense, like Matt Zoller Seitz, who described the movie as a “personal picture, violent and sweet, clever and goofy… as obsessive and overbearing as Steven Spielberg‘s “1941‘ — and as likely to be re-evaluated twenty years from now, and described as ‘misunderstood'”) and ended with a limp box office tally that couldn’t even top the middling opening weekend gross of Disney’s forgettable franchise nonstarter “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” 

While it’s pointless to speculate why the film performed the way it did, we can acknowledge that the movie is a much more interesting and complex mechanism than most made it out to be. Of course, whether all those mechanisms cohered competently and entertainingly continues to be a source of debate between those who found the film to be messy, bloated misfire and the small few who believe Verbinski has crafted something of an expensive anti-blockbuster blockbuster. And certainly the filmmaker’s stamp is on the movie from the lovely framing to a number of flourishes that might have left some taken aback. When we asked Verbinski if he was worried about whether or not anything in the movie was too weird, he fired back: “I hope so. I hope there’s a lot that’s too weird.” 

So below, we break it down: the good, the bad, and the weird of “The Lone Ranger.” And needless to say, spoilers undoubtedly will follow.

The Good

The Climatic Double Train Chase
No matter how you feel about “The Lone Ranger” for the first two hours or so of its epically immense running time, once The Lone Ranger, in full regalia, atop his mighty steed Silver, starts riding alongside a speeding locomotive, you can’t help but give into the wild, over-the-top world that Verbinski and co. have created. Or, at the very least, you’ll crack a smile. Verbinski has showed this kind of gonzo inventiveness before; for the climax of his “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, he had two massive ships firing at one another while being swirled around in a massive whirlpool. The director shows an unparalleled sense of spatial geography and comic timing, with a knack for escalating the stakes within the sequence until the tension becomes nearly unbearable (something Robert Zemeckis used to be oh-so-very-good at). Even though the sequence involves at least two speeding trains (on parallel tracks), you always know what’s happening where in any given moment during the sequence. The gags are piled on, one on top of the other, with a child shooting grapes at a monstrous cavalryman gleefully embellishing a moment where Tonto (Depp) uses a ladder to walk from one train to the other in a moment of Buster Keaton-esque physical comedy derring-do (other amazing moments: a gunfight between the trains, a horse jumping between two cars of the train, and Ruth Wilson perilously dangling off the side of one of them). As far as summertime action set pieces go, it’s unlikely anything will top the last twenty minutes or so of “The Lone Ranger.” It’s that jaw-dropping.  

The Performances
There are a lot of things wrong and weird about “The Lone Ranger,” which we’ll get into shortly, but none of the failures of the film can land at the feet of two leads, Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp. For better or worse, the script puts them at odds with one another for most of the picture, but the pair share a great chemistry, with Hammer forging his own identity as the principled hero, which is no small feat against someone as charismatic as Depp, who could easily steal the entire picture out of from under him. And though Tonto is right up Depp’s usual weirdo alley, it’s not a simple Jack Sparrow rehash as many critics lazily countered, as the character is less informed by eyeliner and alcohol, and given a new shape by an almost silent comedy approach. He’s an endearing oddball, but also an emotionally and spiritually wounded one, and Depp finds those notes. Extra points go to a barely recognizable William Fichtner as the truly vicious and fearsome Butch Cavendish, while Tom Wilkinson has some fun smarming it up as the duplicitous railroad baron Cole. 

The Visuals 
Unlike most of the summer movies that have slammed headfirst into movie theaters this year, “The Lone Ranger” luxuriates (perhaps a little too long) in its own visual opulence, mostly uncluttered by elaborate computer-generated imagery. (It’s got its fair share of visual effects but they’re mostly seamless and hidden, subtly deployed mostly during the train chase sequence at the end.) Instead, “The Lone Ranger” takes in the John Ford-y vistas for all their widescreen grandeur, at one point the image seems to flicker, like it’s faltering under the weight of its own beauty. Everything about “The Lone Ranger” is designed for maximum aesthetic impact— the smooth contours of the trains, every rusty button on every period-specific costume, the way that the glass of the train cars cracks and crunches like old school glass. The movie is overwhelmingly beautiful and Verbinski and company give you ample time to soak in its majesty.   

Verbinski’s Direction
For better or worse, there’s nobody who could have made this “Lone Ranger” besides Gore Verbinski. He is a singular talent, whose imagination rendered things like the train chase but also insisted on oddball elements like the wraparound story (more on that in a minute), and some of the more self-indulgent flourishes that so many have found so off-putting. But in strictly directorial terms, “The Lone Ranger” is a stunner. There are subtle things like the whip pan that accompanies the arrival of the Texas rangers in the film’s opening train sequence, and the way a computer generated herd of buffalo get out of the way of a steaming train in the same scene, but there are also more flashy embellishments, like the drop of poison that drips into a character’s bedside water glass but also liquefies an entire, unrelated frame of Tonto and the Lone Ranger traveling through a sandy desert, or the shot that follows a character as he cascades (mid-air) through a train car. Both exaggerated and simplistic, these moments are all Gore’s. Before a public screening of the film in New Mexico recently, Verbinski stated that he was really trying to do something “different.” He succeeded. Beautifully. 

Zimmer’s Score 
Composer Hans Zimmer has cooked up a number of memorable scores for Verbinski, most notably the still-unreleased scores for both “The Ring” and “The Weather Man,” and “The Lone Ranger” is no exception. When we talked to Verbinski last month about the movie, he said that Zimmer used the “William Tell Overture” as the blueprint for the entire score. He said that Zimmer was responsible for “taking out the motif.” “You hear it early on and there are tertiary fragments that are little themes throughout,” Verbinski explained to us. “It all accrues during the finale.” Zimmer stepped into the production late after bluesy rocker Jack White, who had originally been commissioned to write the music, had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts following the movie’s brief cancellation, and absolutely knocked it out of the park. It’s more subtle and mournful than Zimmer’s similar score to Verbinski’s animated western “Rango,” but it’s also more epic and sweeping. Just awesome.

The Bad

Too Fucking Long
There’s no reason that a movie called “The Lone Ranger” should clock in at at an ass-straining 2 hours and 30 minutes. No reason. And yet there seems to be very little fat in terms of what to cut out, which led to one of the film’s editors, James Haygood, to publicly defend the film’s length and editorial integrity, on his Facebook page (he also gets some well-placed jabs in at the movie’s critical response). “I know I wish the script had allowed me to shave out more, but we went through, over and over and over, looking for things to lift, but there’s a point you just break the film – it stops making internal sense, and THAT becomes the problem,” Haygood wrote. “We decided to make each scene as efficient as possible, and to make sure going from one scene to the next made sense. That was our mission.” Verbinski’s movies are never tight on time (his third “Pirates” movie ran nearly 3 hours) and part of their charm lies in their sometimes meandering aimlessness. But “The Lone Ranger” needed to be a 100 minutes of all killer, no filler funtimes. Instead, it’s burdened by a wraparound story (see below) and a number of scenes which are extraneous in the first place, but within the movie seem to drag it down with excessive bagginess. Had the movie been cut down, it might have lost some of its hangdog atmosphere, and at a trim 2 hours would’ve likely been at least more enjoyable— and not just because it would have gotten us to the train chase 30 minutes earlier.

The Framing Device
The year is 1933, and Tonto now works for a traveling sideshow, acting as a human mannequin in a Wild West tent, as part of a diorama detailing “The Noble Savage in His Natural Habitat.” When a young boy walks by wearing a Lone Ranger costume (we’ll bet a factory somewhere is cranking them out for Halloween), Tonto feels compelled to break the fourth wall and tell him the true story of how he met the masked hero, the genocide of his people, a heart-eating bad guy, land deals, murder and whorehouse madams. Where are this kid’s parents? How is he not freaked out and/or bored? Where’s The Lone Ranger? Is he dead? How come no one else walks by the display? How did Tonto end up here? Can that kid be any more annoying? Can the script be any more spoonfed by continually jumping back to this kid (which grinds the movie to a staggering halt each time) to ask thuddingly obvious questions? That Verbinski made this element— above anything else— the “deal breaker” in making the movie his way or not at all, is perhaps the most baffling part of all of this. The director says he wanted to tell “The Lone Ranger” from Tonto’s point-of-view, but does so in the most ham-fisted, literal way possible while still managing to make it confusing, and a constant fork-in-the-spokes to the pace of the movie. Aside from Nick Carraway titling his psych-exercise memoir “The Great Gatsby,” this may be one of the more embarrassing, blundering narrative missteps of the year.

Lone Ranger & Tonto Aren’t A Team Until Too Late
Call it origin-story-itis, or the result of the filmmakers already thinking one or two movies ahead (franchise!), but the most disappointing aspect of “The Lone Ranger” is that we don’t really get the iconic hero we’ve known for decades until the final third of the movie. On the one hand, perhaps it can be understood that the masked man— despite being a pop culture staple and/or reference for over seven decades— needs to be re-introduced and contextualized for a modern audience. And sure, it probably makes sense to add a bit more to Tonto’s sidekick role, especially when you get an A-list actor like Johnny Depp to play him. But the movie overplays its hand in establishing every minute detail of The Lone Ranger and Tonto’s pre-fame life, and their tedious journey to become crime-fighting pals. This means, essentially, the audience has to sit and wait for these two to go through the familiar motions of learning to trust each other, complete with the standard cliché that finds them splitting up— oh no!— only to come back together again about ten minutes later. So instead of the rootin’-tootin’ adventure the advertising tries to sell, with these two classic characters, much of the film finds them constantly at odds, not becoming a true team until the final train chase sequence—  but by then, it’s too late. As the “William Tell Overture” roars over the theater speakers, hoping to shorthand the transition from bickering buds to heroic duo, the moment feels unearned. 

The Abrupt Tonal Shifts
Wholesale slaughter of Native Americans, a human organ-eating bad guy, harshly treated indentured Chinese laborers, corporate boardroom maneuvering… bring the kids! It would seem that in Disney’s dance to keep the budget down, no one really bothered to read the script or perhaps realized what a wildly uneven mix of tones the resulting film would be. Sure, Gore Verbinski delivers the action (two massive train sequences), and there’s no end to the assorted array of hijinks between the Lone Ranger and Tonto. But the film’s continual and abrupt shifts to “dark” and “mature” throughout may have parents questioning whether it was wise to bring their kids at all. Riding what must be the limits of PG-13, and certainly the edgiest Disney movie in ages, the film’s desire to make a point about the bloody path history left in its wake when it came to building the West, belongs in an entirely different movie. Verbinski simply doesn’t have the nuanced hand required to go from the wacky, Odd Couple antics of his heroes to the more sober, history-lesson segments in the film, which include a flashback as we witness Tonto’s tribe get murdered en masse. As for the fearsome Butch Cavendish, William Fichtner plays him perfectly, giving a real sense of unpredictable danger. But in a movie where the actual bad guy is really the evil Corporate Leader, who is taking over the West via some shady dealing (zzzzzzzz), the human flesh connoisseur and murder happy Butch feels like a leftover element from a darker (and yet zanier) version of this movie, who in the final act, winds up as the secondary bad guy anyway.

Not-So-Romantic Romance
Every hero needs a girl to come home to, but we can’t recall the last time a blockbuster romance was this oddly formed and borderline inappropriate. On the one hand, perhaps there is something to be said for the logic-driven, John Locke-reading, straight-as-an-arrow John Reid having a thing for this brother’s wife. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time in history something like that happened, and it’s an interesting texture to have our hero’s heart wrapped up in something entirely, seemingly unattainable. But, the script doesn’t give John much of a journey to win the heart of Rebecca Reid. Her son (his nephew) already likes him, they openly flirt with each other in front of his brother Dan solidifying their feelings for each other, and once he gets murdered, John doesn’t waste much time after he’s in the ground to make his move. John is presented as a goodhearted, noble man, fighting for a righteous cause, but his relationship with Rebecca is a weird mix of contrived, undercooked and slightly distasteful. (Not to mention that Rebecca’s mourning period for her husband, lasts all of a few seconds, with her heart drawn to John from the start.) While John might be upset that Dan had to die, in the end, it made him a hero and landed him a brand new family all in one fell swoop. It seems dying is the best thing his brother Dan ever did for him.

The Weird

Tom Wilkinson’s Missing Penis
We saw the movie twice before it even opened and on the second viewing, we picked up on something that had flown right past us the first time— Tom Wilkinson’s character has no penis. It’s very subtle but when Tonto and The Lone Ranger are visiting Red’s, the makeshift whorehouse, Red (Helena Bonham Carter) says that Wilkinson’s railroad baron Cole doesn’t stop in because an accident during the war (the Civil War, for those playing at home) left him unable to appreciate the girl’s distinct charms. Still, we thought we were losing our minds, especially when we brought it up to some Disney publicists who looked like we had just grown a second head (and that second head had also asked them if Wilkinson’s character had lost his penis in the Civil War). So we went to the source: Gore Verbinski. His words? “Of course. Somebody’s paying attention!” Wilkinson’s penis actually adds a huge amount of shading to his villainous character because he keeps trying to artificially engineer a family for himself (one that involves the recently widowed Wilson and her young son), because he doesn’t have the gear to make one himself. Too bad everyone glazed over this point. Maybe it was a little too subtle.

The Bad Guys
Consider the band of bad guys of “The Lone Ranger”— one is a transvestite serial killer, who dresses in his lady victim’s clothes and tries to articulate his sexuality (but can’t); there’s another dude whose face seems to be horrible scarred by rope burns and who leaves the hangman’s noose dangling around his neck like a necktie, a reminder that somebody had tried to kill him once and failed; and gang leader William Fichtner, who literally cuts the beating heart out of a man’s chest and consumes it in front of him. This is incredibly weird, even for the admittedly loose standards of a Johnny Depp movie directed by Gore Verbinski (keep in mind that he was a director who kicked off the third “Pirates” movie by hanging a little kid). Someone at Disney has to have seen an early cut of “The Lone Ranger” and, concerned about what they saw, insisted that “Planes,” a spin-off of the lucrative popular “Cars” franchise, be a theatrical release and not just a direct-to-video affair as originally anticipated. There’s probably no cannibalism in that one.

Disney’s Plans
While it seems like there will be no follow-up, of any kind, to “The Lone Ranger,” save some kind of staggering about face at the international market, that doesn’t mean Disney had lost hope for the movie’s commercial prospects and synergistic possibilities within the company. Disney had already teased “Lone Ranger” elements for its forthcoming “Disney Infinity” video-game but as with everything associated with “The Lone Ranger,” they dreamed big. Months ago, plans for some kind of live performance piece timed to the movie’s release was planned for Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Frontierland section of the parks, and, even more amazingly, there were tentative blueprints drawn up to place both The Lone Ranger and Tonto into show scenes inside Big Thunder Mountain, the beloved Frontierland roller coaster that just so happens to be centered, just like the climax of “The Lone Ranger,” on a runaway train. (The Tonto addition would have been a breeze considering they already had an animatronic Johnny Depp lying around in the revamped version of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.) Right now, it looks like the closest the characters are going to get to the park was during the movie’s star-studded premiere, which took place at Disney California Adventure. There have been a number of exciting-sounding shows and attractions that have been scuttled in the wake of poor box office numbers, including rides built around such disappointing Disney productions as “The Black Hole,” “TRON Legacy” and “Dick Tracy.”

What did you find the best, worst, or most baffling about Disney’s “The Lone Ranger?” Did you even go? There are clearly a number of exceptional things to talk about in regards to “The Lone Ranger,” both good and bad, but after the uniform hazing it got this weekend, the discussion could be sadly short-lived. Sound off below, though, to keep it going. At least for a little while. Before it turns into legend.

Drew Taylor and Kevin Jagernauth

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