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Tonto’s little big brother

Johnny Depp as Tonto.

Peter Mountain

Johnny Depp as Tonto.

The opening scenes of “The Lone Ranger” set a tone that the rest of this critically mauled blockbuster can’t match. A little boy at a Wild West show in 1933 encounters an ancient Comanche — Johnny Depp, under heavy latex, as Tonto — who tells the kid the true tall tale of his adventures (right) with the Masked Avenger (Armie Hammer). It’s an eerie, elegiac bit, and moviegoers who know their westerns will immediately spot the reference to 1970’s “Little Big Man.” That film, a roistering comedy-drama that broke ground in its depiction of Native Americans and their treatment at the hands of whites, is framed by Dustin Hoffman as the 121-year-old Jack Crabb, narrating his story to a callow historian (a young William Hickey) from a nursing home wheelchair.

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Available on DVD, “Little Big Man” is well worth a revisit, and not only because Hoffman’s astonishing old-age makeup (courtesy of Dick Smith) makes Depp’s decrepit Tonto look like a rubber dummy. The modern-day scenes bookend “Little Big Man” and provide the movie with its awful sense of perspective — of the lone survivor whose memories have been bulldozed by history. “The Lone Ranger” aims for a similar epic stance with its tent-show framing device, but since what’s in that frame is high Hollywood nonsense, there’s nothing to resonate against. To quote the earlier film’s Chief Dan George: “Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

TY BURR

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