If there’s a fan of the Disney Channel’s smash musical sitcom “Hannah Montana” in your household, then you’ve probably already made plans to see “Hannah Montana: The Movie” when it hits the big screen. And it’s a movie that will very much appeal to fans of the show, as it doesn’t skimp on the singing, the slapstick and the life lessons.
But in the same way that, say, Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers” can be viewed either as straightforward action-sci-fi adventure or as a blistering satire on Fascist propaganda, “Hannah Montana: The Movie” lends itself to two completely different interpretations, one of which is as disturbing as it was probably unintentional to the filmmakers.
Let’s first talk about the movie as it’s being sold and as it will no doubt be understood by the bulk of its young audience: “Hannah Montana: The Movie” brings the TV series to the big screen with lots of energy. To those unfamiliar with the setup, Hannah is one of the world’s most successful pop stars. She’s also the secret identity of teenager Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus), who wants to be able to grow up as a normal kid. Miley goes to school, has friends, and seems utterly typical, but when she throws on a blonde wig and slathers on the makeup, she becomes superstar Hannah.
As the film begins, we see that the strain of her two identities is starting to show: Miley needs to be at the Sweet 16 party of her BFF Lilly (Emily Osment), but Hannah is busy trying to ditch a persistent British paparazzo (Peter Gunn). Hannah’s publicist Vita (Vanessa Williams) wants Hannah in New York City to sing at a big awards show, but Miley’s dad Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus) wants his daughter to come back with him to Tennessee to celebrate the birthday of Miley’s maternal grandmother Ruby (the great Margo Martindale.)
(Miley’s mother, played in a photograph by Brooke Shields, is long dead, because it’s not a Disney movie unless the protagonist is missing at least one parent.)
Miley starts wanting to be Hannah all the time, so Robby Ray diverts her private jet to Tennessee so that she can get back in touch with her roots. And while she objects at first, she winds up rekindling an old friendship with Travis (Lucas Till, dreamy in a focus group–friendly way) and helping grandma to save the town from an evil developer (Barry Bostwick) who wants to put up a giant mall.
Kids will be entertained throughout by both the broad physical comedy (a bad guy slips on rolling walnuts and later falls into a giant mud puddle, a flaming dessert goes awry—all the bases are covered) and the catchy-in-a-Radio-Disney-way tuneful interludes, while parents can enjoy the presence of terrific performers like Williams, Martindale and “The Office’s” Melora Hardin, cast as a potential love interest for Ricky Ray.
“Hannah Montana: The Movie,” alas, punishes Miley so much that you’d think she was a Fassbinder heroine. There’s a recurring motif from something that Robby Ray used to tell his little girl about a caterpillar not being able to move much but still being able to dream about what she’d be. But if Miley is the caterpillar and Hannah is the butterfly, the movie repeatedly knocks Miley down a peg and humiliates her whenever she expresses an interest in blooming into international sensation Hannah full-time, reminding her that family and friends and home and hearth are more important.
Two things wrong with that: First, yes, those things do matter, but it always sounds hypocritical in a Hollywood movie, since they’re generally directed, produced, written by and starring people who couldn’t wait to get out of their small town so that they could pursue their show business ambitions. American movies and TV shows play this the-simple-life-is-better card with some regularity, and it always seems phony coming from entertainment types. (Or like a way to keep the competition from moving to L.A.)
Second, why is it so either/or? The TV show focuses on the fact that Hannah may be a big star, but Miley is still expected to get her homework done and to do the dishes. Hannah may sing “Best of Both Worlds” at the beginning of “Hannah Montana: The Movie,” but the film clearly wants her to choose just one.
But that’s until we get to the climax — as well as the alternate reading of the movie — and if you don’t want to know any spoilers, stop reading now. At the big benefit concert at the end, Miley has decided that Hannah is ruining her relationships with everyone, so she pulls her wig off, reveals her identity and says she’ll be Hannah no more. But after Miley sings one song as herself, the crowd begs her to become Hannah again, promising to keep her secret.
So after 90 or so minutes of excoriating Miley for wanting to be Hannah, her loved ones join the mob in yelling, “Put the wig back on!” (It’s like something out of “Vertigo.”)
The whole final sequence left me kind of queasy with its implication that the Miley character can’t be allowed to break out on her own and have her own career; no, she’s got to put that wig back on and keep on being Hannah, because the fans demand it. This is the alternate reading that may disturb some adult viewers — the notion that artists can’t progress into a new identity because their followers won’t allow it.
Wasn’t that the plot of “Misery”?