Some childhood pleasures and fears we bring with us into adulthood, and others we leave behind so thoroughly they might as well be fins or a tail. A few short years turns the kids who shuddered through R.L. Stine novels into teenage connoisseurs of slasher movies. And the little girls who ate up wholesome Disney comedies starring Jodie Foster or Lindsay Lohan soon decide they’d rather watch Taxi Driver or read about La Lohan’s stints in rehab.
Once you’re past it, it’s difficult to remember the stage of life at which you would have enjoyed Hannah Montana, a cream puff of a movie based on the hit Disney Channel series of the same name. But consider this: It’s sort of like Superman for girls. Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus) is a huge pop star who somehow manages to lead a second life as a normal high schooler without anyone being the wiser. Just as Clark Kent took off his glasses and saved the day, she dons a blond wig and some sparkly outfits and racks up millions of dollars from her tween fandom.
It’s every awkward preteen’s fantasy: to be superficially normal and secretly special. So who cares that the premise depends on no one ever recognizing Miley’s saucer eyes and snub nose? Or that it puts her in silly imbroglios that can only be resolved with copious applications of slapstick? Early in the film, for instance, Miley faces a typical teen choice between attending her best friend’s Sweet Sixteen and shopping for red-carpet duds. Egged on by her slick, soulless publicist (Vanessa Williams), she chooses shopping and ends up in a shoe-related catfight with Tyra Banks, which is captured by a nefarious paparazzo (Peter Gunn).
That’s where Miley/Hannah’s loving dad (Billy Ray Cyrus, natch) puts his cowboy boot down. Fearing that the pop tart is starting to overwhelm the ingenue, he hauls Miley home to Tennessee, where her grandma presides over a Disneyfied version of the South in which a multiracial crew of talented musicians jams the night away in a picture-perfect Victorian farmhouse. Here Miley reconnects with her old crush Travis (Lucas Till), a farm boy who’s described as a dreamboat (but may remind adults more of Jack McBrayer’s lovable simpleton on “30 Rock”). When Miley gets involved in a benefit concert to help save her small town from developers, her more marketable Hannah identity threatens the bucolic peace she’s starting to achieve.
Given that about 80 percent of the film’s target audience just wants to see more of Hannah Montana, and the other 19 percent or so consists of chaperoning parents, Disney really didn’t have to offer anything for the rest of us. That said, the movie is pretty to look at, whether it’s showcasing the candy colors of the Santa Monica Pier or mists rising over a meadow. One song-and-dance number, “Hoedown Throwdown,” is a shamelessly fun hip-hop/country culture collision. And whenever Hannah veers away from kid-friendly physical comedy toward celebrity-culture satire, it’s mildly funny.
But the hardest notion it gives us to swallow is that the real Miley Cyrus leads anything like a normal life. Unlike those earlier freckled Disney princesses, who could act, she spends most of her time mugging and moueing. Maybe there’s talent in there, but it’s hard to tell, and after hearing the dulcet Taylor Swift (who shows up to sing her song “Crazier”), it’s painful to return to Miley’s bubble-gum-pop arrangements and serviceable voice.
The movie offers kids a fine homily for the recession era: “Life’s an uphill climb, but the view is great.” (The message is hard to miss, as it’s repeated three times.) The thing is, Miley’s “uphill climb” consists mostly of changing her clothes quickly and juggling her multiple engagements as a schoolgirl and a superstar. We should all have such daily trials.