07.26.2013

What’s With Casting A White Man To Play Tonto? Featured

by Contributing Writer Michael Coleman

Follow Michael on Twitter @ColemanMichaelP

“What’s with the mask?”  It’s a recurring question in “The Lone Ranger”, Disney’s $250 million-plus attempt to reintroduce the seminal characters from yesteryear to modern movie audiences.  It’s used to varied comedic effect, but I have a better question for Disney: “What’s with casting a white man to play the Native American ‘sidekick’ Tonto?”

Johnny Depp has a history of immersing himself -- losing himself, really -- in movie roles, from Edward Scissorhands to Captain Jack Sparrow to Willy Wonka, so its no surprise that Depp is lost beneath the thick pancake makeup, thicker “native” accent, and comic physical affectations that have made him so bankable in Hollywood.  This time around, his well-intentioned (and actually, quite good) performance is mired in controversy around his casting.  Couldn’t Disney have found a Native American to play Tonto?  Heck, Taylor Lautner (of “Twilight” fame), claims Native American ancestry, and would certainly have helped bring the younger audience to the box office.

This isn’t the first time Disney has come under fire for depictions of Native Americans in film.  The company was criticized for rewriting the legend of Pocahontas for their 1995 animated feature, although that film has stood the test of time much better than this one will.

However, if you’re a fan of Depp’s comedy, you’ll love him here.  The Lone Ranger’s faithful steed Silver has a genuinely funny moment or two (albeit one that’s a bit off color for a Disney family-oriented film), and Helena Bonham Carter pops up in a hysterical far too-small role that gives new legs to the country’s current gun control debate.  Armie Hammer is a passable Lone Ranger, and his chemistry with Depp is good.

When the final action sequence begins, with the William Tell Overture swelling underneath it, you can’t help but smile.  However, this scene is over two hours into the movie, and it’s too little, too late.  The film simply isn’t funny enough to be a great comedy, nor does it have enough action to be a standout in that genre.  The movie also employs a flash-back narrative that just doesn’t seem to work here.

The movie ends making it clear that Disney wanted “The Lone Ranger” to launch a new franchise.  Given its performance at the box office, it’s safe to say that that won’t happen.