Whoever’s in charge of truth in labeling in Washington needs to take a look at the phenomenon called “Hannah Montana.” That’s the name of a fictitious world-famous pop star, who conceals her secret identity in order to live a normal life as fictitious high-schooler Miley Stewart; this way, she has “The Best of Both Worlds” (as Hannah-Miley’s hit song has it). What needs reclassification is the omni-capable 16-year-old, Miley Cyrus, who portrays this double character. She’s frequently described as a singer, a pop star, or a rock star; you can call her an actress, too, since she has spent the last three years starring in the Disney Channel show named for her character; and she now carries her first narrative film (a concert film released last year was a blockbuster). Pop star, actress, ordinary high-school student? Certify her for a whole new title: comedienne.
Cyrus and her co-stars roll through this movie like teenaged, musical Three Stooges (an arresting image, I admit). In the opening minutes she’s hit on the head by a falling coconut and then by a basketball, hijacks a golf cart and careers through the backstage hallways of a concert hall, crashes through a paper scrim to appear wearing the poster of her own larger-than-life face, and barely scrambles onto the stage lift in time for her first song.
Shortly thereafter she’s shopping in a fashionable boutique, admiring a pair of fancy high heels, only to have fellow shopper Tyra Banks imperiously claim them. The two are soon in a full-fledged shoe fight; at one point Cyrus clambers onto Banks’s back, while the model spins around trying to swat at her. Later, a horse snatches the wig off her head, she stuffs eggs into the pockets of her overalls and then lands on her fanny, and she rolls off the roof of a chicken house. (Scolding her friend: “Don’t you know never to wake up somebody who’s sleeping on top of a chicken house?”) There seems to be no variety of physical humor that Cyrus won’t attempt for a laugh, a trait not always found among teenaged actresses and divas.
Hannah Montana: The Movie is full of old-fashioned slapstick, vaudeville stuff, and Cyrus is good at it. Nothing about it is what you’d call clever — the Marx brothers look like humanities professors in comparison — but it sure does have mighty appeal for its single and well-defined target audience: little girls. Not the littlest girls, whom Disney snaps up virtually at birth with its battalion of animated princesses. Cyrus is for the mid-years girls, the ones in elementary school. (“I’m a pre-teen,” said my granddaughter, age 8, on our way to the movie. “Really?” I asked. “Aren’t you what they call a ‘tween’?” “No,” she said.)
It turns out that girls this age like pratfalls, muddy ponds, and exploding birthday cakes as much as their brothers do. Anyone over that age is likely to be bored, and from some quarters Cyrus’s Hannah Montana character attracts the same kind of hatred that Barney the dinosaur used to reap. The anger is ostensibly against big corporations that brainwash little girls (though I suspect much of the contempt arises from pure, spontaneous embarrassment). Moms are ambivalent, certainly, that their daughters are so swiftly captivated by the entertainment giants, whose offerings always exit through the gift shop. But there aren’t many alternatives for such parents, if they own a TV. If Nickelodeon is too screamy and coarse, too full of ads for noisy gadgets and fluorescent cereals, then the Disney Channel looks like an oasis by comparison; its humor is broad but not off-color, parents are depicted respectfully, and all its commercials are for other well-behaved Disney products.
So what does a little girl want? Watch Hannah Montana, and you can glean what no doubt cost Disney millions in market research. She wants to be a pop star, a princess, the center of attention; she wants everyone who sees her to love her and gush with adoration. (Note: There is only one rock star. This is not a story about a rock band, nor are fellow rock stars particularly visible. Just as there is no “i” in “team,” there is no “team” in “princess.”) She wants to be an ordinary person too, with a funny, lovable, infuriating big brother and a strong, loving dad to guide her (mom, cognizant of narrative requirements, had the forethought to die a few years back). She wants a best friend who knows her secret, and plenty of other friends who don’t. She dreams of being in high school — the lockers, the textbooks, the big game, the whole thing.
She’s supposed to want something about boys, but at her age is not sure what. So when Miley, visiting at her grandmother’s Tennessee farm, finds herself needing to hitch a ride on an already-occupied horse, she sits well behind her handsome young rescuer, Travis, arms crossed in front of her chest, with plenty of daylight between them. Toward the end of the movie the moment finally arrives for a kiss. (I am assuming, by the way, that you just really don’t feel any interest in preserving suspense.) We see the two faces approach each other, then there’s a cut — and suddenly we’re standing back a ways, seeing only the back of Cyrus’s head. Whew, that was close.
Sure, there’s not much here to interest an older viewer, but the little girl in your house will be in paradise. If you accompany her to the theater, keep your eye on this young singer-actress-comedienne, Miley Cyrus. She’s pretty, but not intimidatingly gorgeous; she has a wide mouth, a low voice, and a just-folks throaty laugh. She’s relaxed and good-natured, unaffected, at ease, in a way that I think can’t be an act. Cyrus is just plain likable — and she’s only 16. If her material is as well chosen all her life as it has been in these early years, we’re in for a treat for decades to come.
About the middle of the movie, Cyrus carries off an extended farce sequence where she must, as Hannah Montana, attend a fancy dinner given by the mayor (lobster, no less), and simultaneously have her first date, as Miley Stewart, with Travis, in a restaurant directly across the street. She races back and forth, making frantic excuses on both sides, trying to change into the correct costume along the way, entangled each time in a revolving door. She slides into the chair across from her boyfriend-to-be still wearing a lobster bib, one emblazoned with a lobster bearing the face of the mayor. When Travis asks about it, she tries frantically to blabber her way out. That’s when I thought: Somewhere, Lucille Ball is smiling.
– Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.