Googly-eyed Disney muppet Miley Cyrus makes her inevitable big-screen debut in Hannah Montana: The Movie, and the nicest thing one can say about the film is that at least it's not The Suite Life of Zack & Cody: The Movie. A tweener saga that's been crafted mainly with focus-group tests in mind, Hannah's maiden cinematic offering delivers a combination of romance, humor, music, glamour and yay-country-living blather that aims to satisfy the cross-platform franchise's myriad devotees. Given Hannah's roots on a Disney channel show whose primary claim to fame is schooling young television viewers in the finer nuances of sitcom pratfalls and laugh tracks, as well as the illustrious record of director Peter Chelsom, he of Town & Country and Shall We Dance? ignominy, it's hard to feign surprise at the dispiriting results of this movie-cum-brand-marketing-tool. Yet the lengths to which it goes to satisfy a wide array of interests is, even in the wake of its High School Musical kindred spirits, somewhat astonishing, pandering in so many directions that enduring the film is akin to being drawn and quartered.
As everyone interested already knows, Miley Stewart (Cyrus) is an average brunette teen by day, and blonde-wigged pop princess Hannah Montana by night. It's a superhero dual-identity situation that she maintains even though – as indicated by an intro concert sequence in which he hangs out backstage – Miley's dad Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus) isn't very discrete when it comes to hiding his relationship to Hannah. This carelessness makes little sense, especially in light of the fact that the story partially revolves around a nosy tabloid journalist (Peter Gunn) attempting to dig up dirt on the singer. After a public fight over shoes with Tyra Banks – a battle between vapid egomaniacs that, alas, leaves both unscathed – and ruining best friend Lilly's (Emily Osment) sweet sixteen party, Miley is spirited away by dad (for "Hannah detox") to grandma Ruby's (Margo Martindale) Tennessee home, a pastoral paradise where girls are free to turn their heads for maximum slow-motion hair-twirling, where hunky cowboys (Lucas Till's Travis) ride steeds through the morning mist, and where evil developers plotting to transform the open range into a strip mall can be thwarted by a mobilized community and a pop star concert. Oh yes, and where the other artists on the film's soundtrack, namely Rascal Flatts and Taylor Swift, conveniently also live.
Following a couple of music montages – there's one of Miley vainly trying to procure eggs from the chicken coop! And there's one of Miley acclimating to her new surroundings, which chiefly involves rope-swinging into a mountainside pond (replete with waterfall backdrop) with Travis – the heroine [spoilers follow] comes to learn that being yourself is the most important thing of all. Except, of course, that once she takes this valuable lesson to heart, she's then permitted by her southern peers to resume carrying on the Miley-Hannah ruse because, as her agent Vita (Vanessa Williams) argues, it's the only way for her to "live a normal life." As applied to most of Hannah Montana: The Movie, such logic is unsound, since preserving this central charade is precisely what throws Miley's life into constant turmoil, culminating in a Three's Company-ish sequence in which she scuttles back and forth between a banquet thrown by the small town's mayor (as Hannah) and a dinner date with Travis (as Miley), and which ends with a blunt revolving door metaphor that'll make anyone over the age of twelve's head spin.
So the story is dross – big deal, because Hannah's true appeal lies in her (and her bubblegum music's) infectious perkiness, right? Sales figures surely back such a claim, but Hannah Montana: The Movie's litany of tunes seem unlikely to win over the unconverted, providing rambunctiousness and dewiness with such formulaic blandness that, when Travis tells Miley that she needs to write songs that express something about herself, the sentiment is outright laughable. There's not a single genuine emotion conveyed by Hannah's music or story, just synthetic approximations of feelings that have been shrink-wrapped for mass consumption, from Hannah's BFF bond with Lilly, to her rapport with slapsticky brother Jackson (Jason Earles), to the saccharine father-daughter love shared by Miley and Robby Ray. Director Chelsom dutifully pushes tween girl buttons at every turn – some rainbow imagery here, a song about butterflies there – and fans will undoubtedly allow themselves to be manipulated by such maneuvers. Nonetheless, Hannah Montana: The Movie's have-it-all-ways approach (pro-rural, pro-urban, pro-ordinary, pro-celebrity, pro-country, pro-rock) is both transparent and extreme, epitomized by an impromptu performance by Hannah in which – OMG! – she manages the truly unholy feat of simultaneously rapping and creating a new line-dance craze.