Movies: Tonto (and ‘The Lone Ranger’, Too)

Every five minutes or so (which is to say about 30 times given the interminable running time) Johnny Depp reaches up to pour seed onto the dead bird that crowns his Tonto costume. The seed falls pitifully to the ground, ungobbled. The bird is dead but Tonto, for his part, never seems to notice. When other characters point out the obvious deadness of this animal, he waves their concern aside as temporary inconvenience rather than fact. That's as great a metaphor as any for where we are in Johnny Depp's career.

Johnny Depp is just going to keep doing this shtick absently, and forever, though we're long past the point of it being nutritious. One day, if we're to believe Tonto, the bird will fly again; the depressing monotony of its current state will be but a memory. But can Depp the actor ever rise like a phoenix from the moneyed ash of his career?


The mega-star's increasingly cartoonish persona should not disguise the fact that he was once one of the world's most brilliant actors. Years of repeating Jack Sparrow (more films are planned) and derivations thereof in Sparrow's lesser cousins (Sweeney Todd, Willy Wonka, The Mad Hatter) shouldn't cloud our memories of the lighting-in-a-bottle surprise of his original blockbuster. Pirates of the Caribbean began Johnny Depp's A List mega-millions phase but it was actually the peak rather than the breakthrough of his imagination and creativity as a film star. From his doubled feature debut in 1990 with John Waters' Cry Baby and Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, two very different performances that were nevertheless perfectly pitched and styled for the comedy and pathos of their films, through his delusional cross-dresser in Ed Wood up to and including more recognizably human characters like troubled undercover agent Donnie Brasco and bumbling curious Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, Johnny Depp was delivering fresh, often great and non-repetitive film performances for a good dozen plus years.

The behemoth success of the now immortal Jack Sparrow character ended the risk-taking. That's an ironic fate given the now famous resistance he encountered to that performance by Disney executives viewing it in dailies and rough cuts who worried that it was just too weird, too fey, and too out there to work for the family crowd.


But back to Tonto.
The problems with The Lone Ranger are regrettably more mundane than the odd predicament of Johnny Depp's rutted career. The movie never commits to being any one particular kind of thing in direct contract to the original Pirates which so loved the dead swashbuckler genre that it wasn't just embracing its corpse but humping it lustfully back to life. The Lone Ranger, in direct contrast, seems at least uninvested in the western and even a little embarrassed about itself as in its instant disposable of The Lone Ranger's "Hi-Yo, Silver. Away!" catchphrase (mocked rather than revived) and the way it keeps crushing the fun and laughs with repeated heavy reminders of the Actual Fate of American Indians and violence that's just way too grotesque for a family audience. And it's better not to speak at all of its truly terrible framing device in which Old Tonto tells his story to a little kid in the 1930s which keeps pulling you out of the adventure and must have been a braindead attempt to make it relatable to young kids (guess what, they won't find the 1930s anymore relatable than the 1860s!) 

See, you have to know who your audience is and The Lone Ranger emphatically doesn't. There is no box marked "ALL!" under "Target Audience?" though Hollywood keeps trying to write one in. Films which appeal to everyone are beautiful flukes and they only achieve this universal reward by being the very best specific thing they set out to be. Despite a sparkling supporting cast (William Fictner, James Badge Dale, Tom Wilkinson and Helena Bonham-Carter who is contractually obligated to appear in every Johnny Depp picture), handsome sets, and a rousing well mounted finish when "The William Tell Overture" finally kicks in for a crazy fun action setpiece on a speeding train, the movie's already lost in the wilderness. The Lone Ranger rides swiftly past Comanche Territory and into Who Cares Country long before this final act. That's a country that no mega-budgeted summer release ever hopes to get lost in. And there's only a dead bird to guide it.


Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.


  1. Christopher says


    Over analyze much? I read numerous review synopsis before this weekend. Because Family was going, I reluctly went on the 4th. I’ve just seen it now for the second time today (this time with a full-blodded Navajo at my side.) We all loved the film–both groups, both times. I can’t understand film critics. Why this need to dissect a film to death. This is a story told to a young boy. It’s meant to be fun. And, it is. Go, all you readers, and see the film. Enjoy it–you will.

    PS–he feeds the bird because it’s hungry.

  2. AriesMatt says

    @Ricardo, I have read several articles about the movie that address the origins of the word “tonto” and, yes, the Spanish definition was one. FYI.

  3. Christopher says

    Ricardo: It’s referred to a couple of times in the movie. Could go into a long boring analysis of why his character would be called that. . .it goes back to childhood trauma. But, who cares?! And, the movie defines Ke-mo sah-bee: Wrong Brother. (see the movie.)

    Here’s a bit from Wikipedia for you: Tonto’s name may have been inspired by the name of Tonto Basin, Arizona.

    “Tonto” is also a common Spanish and Italian word meaning “stupid.” Interestingly, “Kee Mo Sabe” comes pretty close to “que no sabe,” roughly Spanish for “clueless one” (i.e. “tonto”). For this reason, the character is called “Toro” (Bull) in Spanish language versions.

  4. says

    The original Mr. Rogers would have liked this movie. Siskel and Ebert, too. But the fact is 99% of critics from whatever era are joyless nitpickers who like to spread their misery to as many company as they could AND get an honorarium.

  5. Ray says

    Must disagree. I enjoyed myself, as did the audience I was with. The movie was fun, charming, and exactly what you want for a summer film. Action, bad guys you want to hate, good guys to save the day, a great score, not to mention beautifully filmed. Delve a little deeper and you find the beginning of the quagmire the US government has gotten us into ‘protecting’ our interests, in that our military is just a shill for the corporation.

  6. bcarter3 says

    From “Deadline Hollywood”:

    “But there was only bad news for Disney’s #2 too-expensive The Lone Ranger (3,904 theaters) which opened disastrously Wednesday, remained weak on Thursday, did only $10.6M Friday, and flatlined for $10.7M Saturday. That’s a very disappointing 5-day holiday of $48.9M max. The two-quadrant Western won’t cover its high $215M-$250M cost despite this holiday’s 4x multiple. The Johnny Depp-Armie Hammer starrer’s domestic cume is way below Disney’s initial lowball projection of $65M and the 3rd big-budget bomb of Summer 2013. (Two Sony pics – White House Down and After Earth- also were expensive bombs.)”

    Looks like either this or Will Smith’s bring-your-son-to-work movie will be the biggest bomb of 2013.

  7. M. Drake says

    Your review could not be further off the mark! Perhaps its failure to draw audiences was due more to release timing than its demographic apPeal. The acting, photography, effects, and story made it totally enjoyable. The only thing it needed was a bit of tightening up (About 1/2 hour.)
    I, and my two guests – raved about it.
    So there!

  8. Ryan says

    Armie Hammer was great in Social Network, but doesn’t have the charisma and screen presence to pull off a role like this. He should stick to more character roles, at least until he improves as an actor.

    Depp, in these kinds of roles, is stale as all heck. He needs to put away the Big Blockbuster caricature roles and get back to his roots as an actor for me to enjoy him again. It doesn’t even look like he’s having fun doing it anymore, which could just be the the problem in the first place.

  9. steve talbert says

    This is an example of a really bad movie review. It doesn’t review the movie so much as reveal the authors personal feelings. Tonto DOES NOT mean stupid in the context of the lone ranger. It was a made up Indian name from some guys in the 1930s in Michigan. It only means dumb to people speaking Spanish, in the same way that that car brand Nova had to be renamed because it meant “it doesn’t go” to a Spanish speaker. Guess what? The Lone Ranger wasn’t originally written in Spanish. The same for kimosabe. The creators said it meant trusted guide, I haven’t seen the movie, and I’m not a johnny depp fan, but this review is written as though the author was gazing at his naval to discern the truth of the universe except he calls a belly bottom “origen” because that’s where our first nutritious came from. Although I support pot legalisation, I think we will regret it once its widespread.

  10. says

    One correction to your review… 2003 the WB did a TV Movie of the Lone Ranger starring Chad Michael Murray…the whole legend was rewritten, including the Lone Ranger’s real name (John Reid), who, if you ever followed up on it would know that the Lone Ranger aka John Reid was the Great Uncle of Britt Reid aka The Green Hornet. The WB version’s characters name was Luke Hartman and no Butch Cavendish…only Tonto remained, who had a beautiful sister that…(well, you can figure the ‘love story’ rest)….it was a fiasco!

  11. Ken says

    What a stinker.

    From today’s New York Times:

    Tumbleweeds blew through theaters playing “The Lone Ranger” over the weekend, calling into question Johnny Depp’s star power, and probably leading to a write down of $100 million or more at Disney’s film studio.
    “The Lone Ranger,” which cost at least $375 million to make and market, will need to take in an estimated $800 million worldwide to break even, after accounting for revenue splits with theater owners.
    Disney was trying to figure out how “The Lone Ranger” came up so lame — “the kind of bomb that people discuss for years to come,” as Phil Contrino, chief analyst for put it.
    “The Lone Ranger,” which received terrible reviews, suffered from tonal problems. Was it a campy comedy or a serious action film? Trailers seemed to play it both ways, said Doug Creutz, a media analyst with Cowen & Company.
    Last week, Mr. Creutz predicted that Disney would eventually have to write off $100 million if “The Lone Ranger” did as poorly as prerelease surveys suggested. It actually performed worse; analysts had been bracing for as little as $65 million in ticket sales from the film’s first five days in North American theaters.
    Aside from “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” in 2011, Mr. Bruckheimer’s track record of late has been dismal, with duds including “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” But Mr. Depp may have a bigger problem. Are audiences tiring of his oddball characters? “Dark Shadows,” in which he played a vampire, was also a disappointment last summer.
    Hopes for “The Lone Ranger” now rest on its overseas performance. Mr. Hollis said that the movie’s continued foreign rollout would be staggered over the next two months and noted that Mr. Depp’s movies have tended to overperform internationally. So far, however, interest has been soft; the movie opened in 30 percent of the foreign marketplace over the last week and took in about $24.3 million.

  12. Christopher says

    Ken: Did you see the movie? Quoting the media on the ‘failure’ of a film that received 75% negative reviews ls like quoting the newspaper as saying ‘It Rained!’ after the weatherman forcasts a 75% chance of rain. I do agree that the movie needed a better ad campaign (the poster really doesn’t match the feel of the movie itself) and I hope word-of-mouth will give it a boost next weekend.

  13. JimmyD says

    I loved ‘The Lone Ranger!’ Sure, it’s a bit long, but the finale is so awesomely fantastic you forget if you thought it dragged (which I never felt). Of the three of us who saw it today, none could determine anything we’d cut.
    Tonto is not played as a stereotype. Depp plays him straight but with warmth, humor, and a bit of whimsy.
    The Lone Ranger is not a wuss (as a few critics have written). Hammer is dashing and takes repeated beating yet never loses track of his morals.
    The framing device of an old Tonto telling the story to a young lad at a carnival works quite well. In a way it reminded me of Gilliam’s ‘Baron Munchausen.’
    And when The William Tell Overture finally arrived, we all felt a thrill! This is pure matinee fun!
    Now that the origin is in place, I’d love to see another outing for this old west dynamic duo!

  14. Raybob says

    We all loved it! This reviewer and this review is way off the mark. AND … Feeding the spirit of one’s totem is authentic, depending on the specific people. Do some research before you write.

  15. jomicur says

    I’ve been seeing pictures of Depp with that damn silly bird on his head for months, and it never fails to crack me up. Every time I see it, I can hear John Cleese screaming, “This is an ex-bird!”

  16. jakeinlove says

    I personally am just tired of seeing Johnny Depp in every g-dammed movie. Are there really no other actors available. Love him, but geez!

  17. Jerry6 says

    Having seen ALL of the “Lone Ranger” movies in the 1930’s, I will not see the current version because it appears to be an insult to our Native Americans, and even the image of the Texas Rangers.

  18. Christopher says

    Jerry6: See the movie. This is the Lone Ranger. He stands alone and embodies the meaning of Justice. The Texas Rangers (embodied by the Lone Ranger’s brother) are the honorable/trustworthy arm of government and justice. They are not demeaned in any way. Other institutions of society do not fair as well. Tonto is a person. He doesn’t speak as or represent any stereotype. We do see the people of his nation (the Cherokee) and they are people and not images. Through them we come to understand the odd and unusual quirks of Tonto’s nature. As is happens, I’ve seen this movie with full-blooded Native Americans (Navajo in this case) and they saw no problems with how Native peoples were protrayed.

  19. Armando says

    Even though I see two movies a week, I’m skipping this one. When the preview looks bad and the reviews are worse, I tend to stay away.

  20. lhbham says

    Personally… I loved the movie. It was fun, serious, action packed, and what woman doesn’t like to look at Armie Hammer. It was reminescent of the old spaghetti westerns with their closeups of truly ugly people, had absolutely beautiful scenery and cinematography, was totally entertaining for the entire time. Loved it.

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