In "The Lone Ranger," Johnny Depp reunites with his "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinski for another Jerry Bruckheimer-produced, Disney-distributed period action adventure. Based not on a theme-park ride but on the popular film serials and television show, "The Lone Ranger" is now a definitively more progressive tale where Tonto isn't just a minstrel sidekick -- it's the Lone Ranger, played by Armie Hammer, who takes the back of the saddle -- and the villains are greedy railroad tycoons (Tom Wilkinson). Although there's no language (aside from the term "Injun") or sex, the violence is considerably more gruesome (cannibalism, vague references to rape) than expected.
Here are five questions to ask yourself before heading to see "The Lone Ranger" this summer.
1. Is your kid familiar with "The Lone Ranger"? If you were to play Rossini's "William Tell Overture," would your kid instinctively think "Hi-Yo Silver, away!"? If so, then obviously you've got a "Lone Ranger" fan in your clan, so this movie will make sense to see together. But if your kid has no point of reference for "The Lone Ranger," you need to clue the children in on what the deal is with the Western. You can even watch some episodes on Hulu. Without some basic knowledge of the iconic characters, the movie won't be nearly as enjoyable.
2. Do your children know about 19th Century U.S. history?: There are several historical issues that come up in the story. My soon-to-be sixth grader already knew about how Chinese men were famously involved in the building/expansion of the railroad, and how Native Americans were routinely lied to and mistreated by the government, but he still had several questions after "The Lone Ranger" –- mostly about why Native Americans considered Tonto such a negative depiction of an Indian. We discussed how Depp's Tonto is a far cry from the original. Depp, who is partially of Native American heritage, and the filmmakers reached out to Native American groups to ensure they were comfortable with Tonto's new-and-improved image. Most audiences consider the original Tonto, however, as offensive to Native Americans as the Washington Redskins. The term "Tontoism" is even used as a pejorative like the term "Uncle Tom."
3. How sensitive is your child to violence? Nineteenth Century violence doesn't feature machine guns or missiles, but it can still be shocking and downright disturbing. "The Lone Ranger" villain Butch Cavendish is a cannibal known for eating his victims' body parts. After he kills Dan Reid, Butch rips his chest open and consumes his heart (it's not shown full on -- that would've made the movie rated R, but even in silhouette it's clear what he's doing). Then, there are people who drown, have their necks broken, are shot, and are scalped (not by actual Native Americans).
4. Do you worry about romance/language? As with many of the summer's big-budget PG-13 action flicks, there's very little romance. Sure, John Reid/the Lone Ranger has a sweetheart (who happens to be his ex-girlfriend/dead older brother's widow), but aside from moony eyes and lingering looks, they only share one kiss. Helena Bonham Carter plays the madam of a carnival brothel, but there's just a quick glimpse of corseted working girls, but nothing else. The language is tame except for the (period appropriate) use of "Injun" to refer to Native Americans.
5. Who should go see "The Lone Ranger"? It's definitely not getting the best reviews of Depp's career, but for some Johnny fans, the promise of seeing him on screen, in full costume, is too tantalizing to miss. If your kids are no longer interested in animated adventures (a day I don't look forward to) and are old enough to understand the complicated, institutionally racist, and bloody history of the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans, westward expansion, and robber barons, then they should do just fine with the content. Kids who love westerns and are familiar with the original show will get more of the jokes as well.