Box Office Bomb Autopsy: The Lone Ranger

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 23rd July 2013.

Hollywood is reeling after a string of blockbusters failed to perform at the box office. White House Down (starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, due in Australia on September 5), Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger (both now showing) have all tanked, with the latter projected to cost Disney over $100 million in losses. That’s a lot of Disney Dollars for the House of Mouse.

Hi-ho Silver, let’s perform an autopsy on The Lone Ranger before the body gets cold, although one could argue that it was already dead on arrival.

I booked ahead for a screening of The Lone Ranger on its first weekend of release, anticipating a full house. To my surprise, there were only a handful of people in the cinema. That’s a pretty clear indication of the lack of interest in the franchise. How many people worldwide have been waiting for a Lone Ranger movie? Well, I only know of one, my dad. He absolutely loved the film. As for me, I can’t remember ever seeing a Lone Ranger TV show. I know the catchphrases and the William Tell overture but that’s it. How did Disney expect to market this film to children?

Previously, Disney relegated its more adult orientated output for Disney-owned imprints such as Hollywood Pictures, Miramax Films or Touchstone Pictures. Not so anymore. The Lone Ranger begins with the standard Disney opening sequence and soon follows it with the villain, Butch Cavendish, played by William Fichtner, eating an adversary’s heart. Despite the Lego playsets and merchandise, this violent film is not for kids.

Director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp have previously struck box office gold with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The same formula is employed here: a complex story with supernatural overtones, Depp completely engrossed in a goofy character, big budget action sequences, a Hans Zimmer score and an overlong running time. Unfortunately, audiences were already starting to lose interest in Jack Sparrow and company by the third sequel (with a fifth entry on its way) and Verbinski and Depp may have gone to the proverbial well once too many. And why call it The Lone Ranger when it’s clearly Depp’s film as “sidekick” Tonto?

There are some major problems with the tone of this movie which is also confusing audiences and critics, much of it surrounding Depp’s portrayal of Tonto. There’s no doubt that Tonto is a racist stereotype. Whether you are comfortable with this largely depends on whether you believe that Depp has Native American ancestry. In May 2012, Depp was adopted as an honorary son of the Comanche Nation but has no confirmed Native American bloodlines.

The Lone Ranger features some violent sequences of Comanche warriors getting mown down en masse by machine guns. Clearly it is trying to acknowledge historical atrocities, but almost immediately we return to Depp playing the fool as Tonto. The film is trying to say something. I’m just not sure what. And neither do the filmmakers.

Despite its problems, I still had fun with The Lone Ranger. Armie Hammer has a great name and shows solid comic timing as the real sidekick of the film, the titular character also known as John Reid. The cinematography, especially in Monument Valley, Arizona, is handsome and the action sequences are skilfully handled. You can see every one of the $250 million dollars spent on the film. The baddies, played by Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson, are appropriately nasty (for a non-family film). Besides my complaints above, my only other gripes are some pretty poor prosthetic work on Depp’s old Tonto (although not J. Edgar terrible) and Helen Bonham Carter playing her standard quirky character.

The Lone Ranger may have failed to fill Disney’s coffers but don’t feel bad for the House of Mouse. Last year they reaped in $1.5 billion on The Avengers and will soon be launching some new entries in a little known film franchise called Star Wars.

Published in: on July 23, 2013 at 17:50  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

This review was originally published on The Orange Post on Sunday 17th March 2013.

What happens when you take a well known filmmaker with a distinct visual style and a back catalogue of cult and popular hits, and run them through the Disney corporate movie machine? There are two answers to this question: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and now Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful.

Burton’s 2010 blockbuster was a bland CGI heavy 3D mess that dispensed with character in favour of spectacle. Unfortunately, Oz suffers the same fate. Responsible for three of my favourite films of all time, the Evil Dead trilogy, Raimi’s trademark fast paced style and wry humour is crushed by the Disney steamroller leaving behind a pretty screensaver and little else.

With the rights to The Wizard of Oz, including all of the elements introduced in the 1939 MGM film which did not originate in L. Frank Baum’s book, held by Warner Bros., art director Robert Stromberg was forced to redesign the Land of Oz for this unofficial prequel. Thus, there are no ruby slippers, the yellow brick road in Munchkinland has a different swirl and even the Wicked Witch’s green skin tone is slightly (but legally) different.

These limitations, coupled with a reliance on CGI, results in landscapes which appear to have been lifted straight from last year’s Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, another ho-hum green screen adventure.

As the titular Oz, James Franco is out of his depth. Smiling is not the same as emoting and I wonder what the earlier casting choices of Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jnr. would have brought to the film. Oz is a complex character who treats people badly at the beginning of the film, but then begins to see the value of friendship and love. Unfortunately, all of this character development is undermined by the audience’s knowledge that he will bugger off in the balloon at the first opportunity in the next film.

Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis are serviceable as witchy sisters Evanora and Theodora. Michelle Williams fares better as Glinda, a role that requires her to do little else but look pretty and speak in a breathy style. Zach Braff appears in the beginning as Oz’s offsider Frank and then voices the CGI monkey bellhop Finley. A little Zach Braff goes a long way so don’t be surprised if you feel like reaching out and trying to strangle the 3D monkey by the end of the film.

The theme of duality which worked well in the MGM original makes little to no sense in this prequel. Beginning in black and white and a 4:3 aspect ratio, Raimi’s film then transitions to colour, 2:35:1 widescreen and stereo sound upon arrival in Oz. Several actors make cameos in the black and white segment, and then reappear as different characters in Oz. There seems to be no explanation for this. No-one is clicking their heels and going back to Kansas at the end of the film.

Remarkably, Raimi cannibalises from his own work, with a graveyard sequence and mechanical line of soldiers distracting the enemy ripped directly from Army of Darkness.

In 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, Raimi showed he was capable of finding his mojo again after a creative disappointment with Spider-Man 3. Let’s just hope he does something truly great and powerful after the disappointment that is Oz the Great and Powerful.