Hannah Montana: The Movie (United States, 2009)

April 09, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hannah Montana: The Movie Poster

An interesting question occasioned by the release of Hannah Montana: The Movie is whether the motion picture incarnation of the popular TV show is catching the backend of the pop phenomenon wave. Certainly, when the 3D Miley Cyrus concert movie was released last year, Hannah Montana was peaking, which resulted in some extraordinary box office numbers for a limited release film targeted at a tight demographic. This year, however, the 3D Jonas Brothers concert movie (targeting the same audience) tanked and Cyrus' latest album, the Hannah Montana: The Movie soundtrack, could debut at no better than #2, selling only about a third the number of copies in its initial week as the singer's previous CD. Based on the buzz in the primarily tween female audience who attended the pre-release screening at which I saw the film, Hannah Montana is not yet on life support, but Disney is wise to strike while the iron is hot. It's hard to imagine this having legs. (To my untrained eyes, an analog is the early 2000s Lizzie Maguire.)

Perhaps the strangest thing (at least on the surface) about Hannah Montana: The Movie is the selection of Peter Chelsom as director. He's no hack. In fact, toward the beginning of his career, he was behind several art house favorites (Hear My Song and Funny Bones). He hasn't done anything since the poorly conceived Shall We Dance? remake, and that absence may explain how someone with his profile became available for a movie with which one might not normally associate his name. While it's unclear how or why Chelsom got this job, his involvement at least gives the film a patina of respectability, although genuine quality is another matter. Whatever qualities Chelsom brings to the project, they are unable to compensate for the mediocre acting and cringe-inducing music. Undoubtedly, Hannah Montana: The Movie will appeal to Cyrus' core audience, but the chances of this sanitized, prepackaged effort expanding her fan base is about nil.

The film plays a little like a hybrid between a superhero tale (with its secret identity elements) and a Disney family film (which, of course, it is). The premise of the TV series is carried into the film. Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus) is an average teenager who, when donning a blonde wig, lives a second life as pop superstar Hannah Montana. And for those who cynically wonder how an entire school's population can fail to notice that Miley and Hannah look the same, I have two words for you: Clark Kent. As Hannah Montana: The Movie opens, Miley/Hannah has gotten a little full of herself, with the Hannah portion of her personality taking control. She blows off her brother's departure for college and upstages her friend Lily (Emily Osment) at the other girl's 16th birthday party. After seeing this deplorable behavior, Miley's dad, Robby Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus), decides enough is enough. He banishes Hannah and takes Miley back home to Tennessee, with the goal of her re-establishing contact with her real identity. To her surprise, she discovers that having Hannah as an alter-ego can be as much of a burden as a benefit, and the blonde wig becomes an albatross that threatens to destroy her life. Of course, this being Disney, there's a slipper of sorts, a Prince Charming, and the clock never strikes midnight.

It doesn't make much sense to complain about the storyline, which is on the level one can reasonably expect. It's written for 7-to-11 year old girls and knows its target group. Likewise, the acting is unimpressive but what the performers lack in skill they make up for in energy and charisma. Miley Cyrus is extremely likeable, although she shows little in the way of discernible range. It would be surprising to see her enjoy a long and prosperous career in front of the camera. Unlike other teenage actresses like Dakota Fanning and AnnaSophia Robb, she lacks depth.

Perhaps the thing that most surprised me is how fingernails-on-blackboard awful the music is. The weakness of Cyrus' voice is amply displayed; one might have incorrectly assumed the filmmakers would employ some kind of electronic enhancement to strengthen the vocals. Cyrus is also inept at lip synching. On seemingly half the songs, it's as if she's performing in a badly dubbed kung-fu movie. Arguably, the movie's biggest mistake is having Taylor Swift perform a song, since she can sing and the comparison is not flattering to the movie's star.

The production's brand of humor represents the kind of lazy, obvious material that appeals to younger viewers but will have a hard time amusing anyone past puberty. There's also an inane and annoying subplot about a British tabloid reporter. This could have been cut without damaging the storyline or impacting the resolution but, for reasons known only to the filmmakers, it was not left where it should have been abandoned: on the editing room floor.

To the credit of those involved in Hannah Montana: The Movie, the picture achieves what it sets out to do - make a big screen experience for those who adore the TV series. Perhaps with a franchise like this, which has a short "sell by" date in the first place (will anyone remember Hannah Montana ten years from now?), reaching a wider audience isn't the point. Instead, make the tweens happy so they'll buy tickets, DVDs, and merchandise to keep the cash register ringing... Anything to help the economy. For those who haven't been enraptured by the "magic" of Hannah on TV, there's no reason to see the movie (nor is there likely to be any desire unless you're the parent of a Hannah-obsessed child). Adults who find themselves watching the film for one reason or another won't become suicidal, but it's not the best way to pass 100 minutes. So give Hannah Montana: The Movie four stars for its fans and two stars for the rest of us.

Hannah Montana: The Movie (United States, 2009)

Director: Peter Chelsom
Cast: Miley Cyrus, Billy Ray Cyrus, Emily Osment, Jason Earles, Mitchel Musso, Moises Arias, Lucas Till, Vanessa Williams
Screenplay: Dan Berendsen
Cinematography: David Hennings
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2009-04-10
MPAA Rating: "G"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1