" Hannah Montana: The Movie" is not so much a movie as it is a trial balloon to see if Miley Cyrus, with her big blue eyes, exceptionally white teeth and increasingly long limbs, can hold the big screen as effectively as she has the small screen. The answer is yes.
Even almost completely stripped of the zinger-driven physical comedy that marks "Hannah Montana" the television show and saddled with what may be the most ridiculous climactic situation in teen-movie history, the film allows Cyrus to deliver a solid ingénue performance, shimmering where she needs to shimmer, sassing where she needs to sass and, most important, continuing to offer audiences the image of a lovely but still recognizable real girl onto whom they can project their own dreams.
Oh, and she sings at least two songs that will no doubt become big, big hits.
It isn't easy to take a slapstick sitcom shot on a soundstage and turn it into a dramatic feature film. The show's formula -- the banter-heavy high jinks of Miley Stewart (Cyrus), brother Jackson (Jason Earles), best friends Lilly (Emily Osment) and Oliver (Mitchel Musso) and lovable nemesis Rico (Moises Arias), inevitably tempered with a life lesson provided by dad Robby Ray Stewart ( Billy Ray Cyrus) -- works well in a half-hour laugh-track-heavy format. In a full-length feature film? Well, as Miley would say, not so much.
So screenwriter Daniel Berendsen (the "Twitches" movies and "Sabrina the Teenage Witch") and director Peter Chelsom (2004's "Shall We Dance?") quickly put a great deal of literal and figurative distance between the film and the show. We meet Miley and company in Los Angeles, where the show takes place, through a peppy dance number set to the theme song "Best of Both Worlds."
But there is trouble in paradise. Hannah now has a publicist played by Vanessa Williams in only a slightly dialed-down version of "Ugly Betty's" Wilhelmina. There's also a sleazy tabloid journalist (Peter Gunn) prowling around (British, presumably to avoid offending the local entertainment press).
But that's not really the problem; the problem is that you can't really have the best of both worlds. As Hannah, Miley is in danger of becoming such a little diva -- she engages in a public shoe fight with Tyra Banks! She upstages Lilly's 16th birthday party! -- that Robby Ray yanks her home to the rolling green hills of Tennessee to visit her grandmother, remind her of her roots and straighten her the heck up.
Why anyone would want to leave Crowley Meadows is indeed a mystery. For one thing, Miley's grandmother, Ruby, is played by Margo Martindale, who raises the performance bar with a simple knowing nod. Her farm foreman, Lorelei (Melora Hardin), and farmhand Travis (Lucas Till) provide age-appropriate love interests for both father and daughter. The members of Rascal Flatts regularly hang out in Ruby's big yellow farmhouse, and Taylor Swift drops in for the local fundraiser. All that and a horse named Blue Jeans.
But there is tension here too, in the form of a mildly annoying developer (Barry Bostwick) who wants to build a mall in Crowley Meadows, and there's that nasty journalist and then the whole Hannah/Miley conflict. Caught in the middle of the last is poor Travis, handsome and shockingly credible in a cowboy hat but still able to look Hannah right in the face and not recognize Miley, the girl on whom he has had a crush since first grade.
If only the actual threats of stardom were so benign, if only the solutions so simple and sylvan. But "Hannah Montana: The Movie" and, indeed, Hannah Montana the brand are not about stardom or the music business or even the pitfalls of ambition; they are about empowering kids to follow their dreams while reminding them that family and friends must remain the firm foundation.
Never before has anything remotely connected with the music industry been so resolutely G-rated: When Miley visits a local swimming hole with Travis, she jumps in fully clothed (though clearly wearing a swimsuit underneath).
There's nothing wrong with the message, and heaven knows a G rating is appreciated, but the twin yoke of the Disney brand and the Cryus image (no more ill-advised Vanity Fair sexuality!) does limit what Berendsen can do in terms of dramatic tension.
Hannah can't behave like an actual troubled pop star and retain her audience identification, so her sins are supremely mild and mostly of omission, which must then be ridiculously blown up to allow her the necessary epiphany: Honesty is more important than fame.
At least, I think that's what it was; the climactic moment, though including what will no doubt be the new Disney anthem, was a bit confusing in its message and seemed mostly to involve the Hannah wig.
It also would have been nice to see more of the supporting players who have made the show such a big hit. Osment and Earles especially are both fine comedians, and Earles' Jackson is the main reason most boys watch "Hannah Montana," so limiting their roles -- poor Jackson has to play second fiddle to an ostrich and a ferret -- seems not only unnecessary but potentially risky at the box office.
In the end, "Hannah Montana: The Movie" is big, beautiful, a little boring and utterly safe. There are flashes of inspiration -- the "Hoedown Throwdown" dance, the scenes between Martindale and the Cyruses -- but it also is what it is: Miley Cyrus' next big step.
McNamara is a Times television critic.