Disney’s teen sitcom revolves around Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus), an endearingly gawky schoolgirl who leads a secret double life as globe-spanning pop superstar Hannah Montana. A life that, as per the plot of this feature film spin-off, is in danger of leading Miley to sacrifice her soul to showbiz. By putting superficial needs above friends and family she inadvertently ruins her best friend Lily’s (Emily Osment) sixteenth birthday and exhibits more enthusiasm squabbling over designer shoes than in joining her accident prone brother Jackson (Jason Earles) on a visit to Grandma Ruby (Margo Martindale). This proves the last straw for her dad, Robby Ray Stewart (Billy Ray Cyrus) who tricks Miley into returning to their former hometown Crowley Corners near Nashville, Tennessee. Aided by handsome cowboy Travis Brody (Lucas Till), Miley tries to rediscover the joy of being a simple country girl until she eventually faces the dilemma of whether to live a lie or stop being Hannah Montana.
Over the past ten years Disney have largely set aside traditional storybook fare in favour of creating a new breed of fairytales for today’s media savvy children. Whether one sees this obsession with show-business drama as a dispiriting trend or not, there is something oddly fascinating about the way Disney movies like Camp Rock (2008), Starstruck (2010) and Bolt (2008) (which also features Miley Cyrus) function as inverted fairytales where it is not about chasing the dream, but rediscovering those humble qualities that made such dreams possible. Or to put it in crasser terms: trying to keep it real.
Hannah Montana: The Movie may not alter the opinions of those who find the whole phenomenon unbearable, but when assessed soberly does extend the ideas underpinning those other Disney works into amazingly post-modern areas. After all, Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus (formerly of “Achy Breaky Heart” infamy) are indeed father and daughter, the film takes place in their real hometown and the plot finds Miss Cyrus re-enacting her own very real career dilemmas onscreen. At a stretch this saga of an American sweetheart trying to rediscover the simple country girl buried beneath the showbiz glitter could serve as a metaphor for the American nation trying to reclaim its soul after the tarnished bombast of the George W. Bush years.
Okay, that might be overreaching slightly but given how the screenplay - co-authored by series creators Michael Poryes, Richard Correll and Barry O’Brien together with veteran Disney scribe Daniel Berendson - parallels Miley’s identity crisis with a business tycoon’s (Barry Bostwick) attempt to rob Cosy Corner’s of its simple small-town decency, an attempt has been made to layer the story with something beyond wish-fulfilment fantasy. Dealing as it does with a benevolent form of showbiz chicanery, dual identities and the sometimes soul-nurturing benefits of illusion, the film echoes past works by Peter Chelsom, notably Hear My Song (1991) and Funny Bones (1995).
Chelsom does a fine job expanding this beyond its televisual origins and sweeps his camera over gorgeous Tennessee scenery caught in beguilingly honeyed tones. Some of the slapstick is rather strained, but Miley Cyrus is a dextrous comedienne and, despite her detractors, has an effervescent charm. Disappointingly the movie sidelines the physical comedy gifts of Hannah Montana’s engaging supporting players: Jason Earles (who has a real flair for slapstick stunt-work), Mitchell Musso and especially Emily Osment whose dynamic with Miley Cyrus (being a couple of likeably goofy teenagers who can’t believe they’re living the showbiz dream) is a crucial aspect of the show but downplayed here. Lucas Till, last seen dodging zombies in Dance of the Dead (2008), embodies every fourteen year old girl’s idea of a handsome young cowboy but the romantic subplot is scarcely profound.
As for the music, once you get past Disney’s stock saccharine pop tunes there are a handful gems for the open-minded. Miley’s whole “pop it, lock it, polka dot it” country/rap fusion number is infernally catchy and proofs the film’s liveliest musical set-piece, even if it marks a revival of line-dancing (Peter Chelsom appears among cast and crew to recreate the dance over the end credits. The guy can move!). Billy Ray Cyrus briefly reclaims the spotlight from his precocious daughter and current country darling Taylor Swift makes a cameo. The standouts tracks belong appropriately to Miley Cyrus including a beguiling acoustic duet with her dad on “Butterfly Fly Away” and the country rock hit single “The Climb”. More than any other this song embodies the compellingly weird, post-modern (there’s that phrase again) duality of the film whose climax finds Miley removing the mask, repaying her fans’ faith by making herself vulnerable and hoping they won’t turn away. Honestly, no matter what your own opinion of the Hannah Montana phenomenon, children’s entertainment has never been so disarmingly complex or confessional.