Friday, April 10, 2009

Hannah Montana, The Movie: Let's do this!

Hannah Montana, The Movie (2009) • View trailer for Hannah Montana, the Movie
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.10.09
Buy DVD: Hannah Montana, The Movie • Buy Blu-Ray: Hannah Montana: The Movie (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

So there I was, one of few adults in the audience to begin with, and probably the only one without a young daughter in tow, surrounded by 549 eager and excited little girls, half of them clutching Hannah Montana posters, the other half wearing Hannah Montana T-shirts, and all of them passing the time by singing Hannah Montana songs or sharing moments from the Disney Channel's Hannah Montana TV series.

Truly, I haven't seen such enthusiasm since the debut of the first Harry Potter movie, back in 2001.
Although initially quite resentful after being dragged back to her whistle-stop
home town, Miley (Miley Cyrus) perks up a bit after bumping into childhood
friend Travis (Lucas Till), who has matured into a strapping young cowboy.
And if you smell a song coming, you're right...

Happily, Hannah Montana: The Movie delivers precisely what its fan base wants ... and, judging by the applause that greeted the end of Tuesday evening's Sacramento preview, the audience had a great time.

Much has been written about the impressive pop-star ascent of Miley Cyrus, thanks to a simple but clever concept that permits plenty of good-natured fun and leaves room for lots of music. The irrepressible Cyrus is both a natural and a good sport: The camera loves her  from the broad, friendly grin to the sparkling eyes and homespun manner  and she's willing to embrace the goofier aspects of plotlines that include the sort of gentle slapstick that Disney has been using since the 1950s, and the original Mickey Mouse Club.

That's part of this big-screen escapade's charm; the other is a similar retro nod to all the dozens of "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" barnyard musicals that Hollywood cranked out in the 1930s and '40s, perhaps best typified by the frequent pairing of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

Hannah Montana: The Movie is concocted to permit the canny placement of "12 brand-new songs"  a promotional phrase repeated with delight by Tuesday's young fans  in a storyline that revolves around the teenage star's various performances, rehearsals or songwriting sessions.

The songs rarely interrupt the narrative, because they are the narrative.

For those who've somehow missed out on this pop-culture phenomenon, Miley Cyrus  daughter of country music icon Billy Ray Cyrus  was 13 years old when she debuted in 2006's first season of Hannah Montana, a show that was fashioned, to a degree, around Miley's actual life. She stars as Miley Stewart, a rising young singer whose widowed father, Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus), helps shape an ingenious double-life that affords the girl protection from the pressures of public life.

By day she's just Miley, an average kid (who happens to sing a lot); by night  or on weekends, or when a performance calls  she dons a blond wig and hops into colorful, spangled outfits to become the incredibly popular Hannah Montana, whose fame only spread as the TV series continued through subsequent seasons.

And, in a fascinating case of life imitating art, the same thing happened to Miley Cyrus herself.

The notion that a simple wig somehow would deceive the general public  as if anything could conceal Miley's fresh-faced, cute-as-a-bug appearance  is part of the fun, as are the various attempts to "prove" that Miley and Hannah are two different people, much the way Clark Kent forever tricked poor Lois Lane into believing that he wasn't Superman. The gimmick grants plenty of room for gentle screwball comedy, but the laughs never interfere with the music and dancing.

Director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity, Shall We Dance) maintains the same careful blend in this film, and screenwriter Dan Berendsen shrewdly exploits a real-world issue that mirrors the sort of concern Billy Ray Cyrus probably has experienced, more than once, watching so much happen  and so quickly  to his talented daughter.

As the story begins, Miley has become much too full of herself, and much too fond of the attention garnered by her blond alter-ego. After "Hannah" battles supermodel Tyra Banks over a pair of designer shoes, and then upstages BFF Lilly's (Emily Osment) 16th birthday party on the Santa Monica Pier, Robby Ray realizes that his self-centered daughter is out of control.

He thus tricks her into a two-week "vacation" back in their small home town of Crowley Corners, Tenn., where they're re-united with her doting grandmother (the always wonderful Margo Martindale). Miley quickly bumps into Travis (Lucas Till), a childhood friend grown into a swooningly handsome young cowboy; obvious sparks fly.

Aside from Miley's need to regain perspective, additional conflict is provided on two fronts: a snarky British reporter (Peter Gunn, quite a hoot) seeking an exposé to splash all over a scandal rag back home; and a condescending developer (Barry Bostwick, sadly underused) who wants to turn some of the beloved Crowley Corners countryside into an upscale mall.

Travis likes Miley but is too shy to admit it; Miley likes Travis but figures he should make the first move, and tries to build up her own rep by claiming to "be good friends" with Hannah Montana back in Los Angeles. Travis then realizes that a performance by Hannah could save Crowley Corners, but by now Miley is trying to get away from her more famous other self.

Misunderstandings and confusion ensue; you could script the rest in your sleep.

The material may be familiar, but Berendsen mixes all the ingredients pretty well, and manages to include familiar faces from the TV series: the aforementioned Lilly; Miley's older brother Jackson (Jason Earles); close friend Oliver (Mitchel Musso); and even a quick appearance by the hapless Rico (Moises Arias).

More crucially, Miley finds plenty of opportunities to sing, whether as herself or as Hannah. And I must say that it'd be pretty darn intimidating to live in Crowley Corners, because every gathering of friends or family  whether planned or spontaneous  quickly turns into an impressive musical shindig. Wouldn't you hate to be the only person in town who couldn't sing, dance or play an instrument?

The added talent comes courtesy of several top-flight guest stars, notably Taylor Swift, who charms her way through a sultry rendition of "Crazier" at a save-the-town shindig; and the boys of Rascal Flatts, who pop up on Grandma Stewart's front porch.

Miley's various songs run the gamut, from joyous to wistful  a duet with her father, in "Butterfly Fly Away," is particularly poignant  but none is more fun than "Hoedown Throwdown," an up-tempo dance number dubbed "Miley's Macarena" during filming. Like that novelty hit and "The Funky Chicken," the song's lyrics teach its own dance, and I can envision thousands (millions?) of little girls mastering the moves.

In the movie, this sequence brings the house down, and deservedly so. (The song pops up again, as a means of re-introducing the cast, during the closing credits.)

Some of the extraneous little touches try too hard for laughs, as when Oliver's pet ferret escapes during a formal meal with the mayor of Crowley Corners, or when poor Jackson winds up wrestling a huge crocodile (um ... right). Other bits are inventive and sweet, the best being the designer chicken coop that Miley and Travis build. (Heck, I'd live in it, and be proud to.)

The bottom line: The current Disney regime remains brilliant with its squeaky-clean, apple-pie entertainment. Between Hannah Montana and High School Musical, the Mouse House continues to make the world safe for wholesome family values, and it's refreshing to see this marketing niche addressed so well. Fun, fun, fun.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to find the Enterprise front office manager's daughter, and nail down those steps from "Hoedown Throwdown"...

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