Another fun Disney Channel tween sitcom. Disney will be releasing the Hannah Montana: Life's What You Make It DVD, their latest compilation of episodes from the smash hit series. This particular group includes the episodes Achy Jakey Heart Parts I & II, I Want You to Want Me...To Go to Florida, and I Am Hannah, Hear Me Croak. A couple of minor extras fill out this slim offering from Disney.
Now I know my five-year-old daughter loves Hannah Montana, and I've heard that catchy theme song countless times as I pass by the family room, but I've never sat down and watched this particular Disney Channel tween sitcom. I also know that somewhere between last year when this premiered and today, Miley Cyrus (or should I say "Hannah Montana") has become a musical force to be reckoned with - at least in record sales (evidently, she knocked out Kelly Clarkson from the top of the pops charts once). I really couldn't care less about any of that, nor about the never-ending debate that seems to go on anytime one of these merchandizing-oriented shows becomes a hit. Who cares if Disney crafted Hannah Montana out of whole cloth to sell records, toys and a hundred other items? That argument was already ancient with The Monkees forty years ago. If a "product" is entertaining, that's all I care about.
And Hannah Montana is surprisingly just that: entertaining. If you don't know already, Hannah Montana tells the story of 14-year-old Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus), the daughter of former singer/songwriter star Robbie Stewart (Billy Ray Cyrus, the real-life father of Miley). Living in a sweet Malibu beachfront home, Miley has a secret she jealously guards to maintain a relatively normal teenage life: donning a blonde wig, Miley becomes "Hannah Montana," a famous tween pop singing idol adored by millions of American boys and girls. Of course, complications arise as Miley tries to negotiate her real-life and fantasy personas, while her father keeps a strict eye on her to keep her head level.
Naturally, as with all sitcoms, Miley/Hannah has some wacky relatives and friends to provide plenty of comedy relief. Her brother, Jackson Stewart (Jason Earles, with lots of energy), is a fast-talking slickster who works down at Rico's Surf Shop, run by the egomaniacal little troll, Rico (Moises Arias, who at times is quite hysterical). Her best friend, Lilly Truscott (Emily Osment, in a quirky, deadpan performance) plays "Ethel" to Miley's "Lucy," and Oliver (Mitchel Musso), is the dorky neighbor who has a crush on Miley. Episodes frequently revolve around Miley's complicated love life, and her equally complicated maneuverings between being an average American kid and a huge pop idol.
I certainly wasn't expecting much from Hannah Montana when the first episode on the Hannah Montana: Life's What You Make It compilation DVD started up. With that insanely happy laugh track and the cheap three-video camera look typical of other junkie tween sitcoms on cable, Hannah Montana promised to be business-as-usual for these types of programs. But after getting into the rhythm of the show, I was surprised at how much I was enjoying it. While the conventions of the tween sitcom are painfully obvious and broad here (lots of mugging, lots of stale, over-sold punchlines, and that god-awful laugh track), the self-reflexive nature of the show gives a nicely layered feel - which is complicated for the viewer even more by having Miley Stewart/"Hannah Montana" played by real-life Miley Cyrus, who has her real- life father Billy Ray playing her father, the ex-singing star. When you add to the fact that "Hannah Montana" is now in real life a big recording star (is it Hannah Montana as played by Miley as Hannah the "TV star," or vice versa?), you have a fun little game of pop culture semiotics you can endlessly ponder.
But all of that would be meaningless if the show and the stars weren't funny or entertaining. I can't say much for the scripts on Hannah Montana, but the cast is bright and energetic, and I was particularly impressed with young Miley Cyrus. For a 14-year-old (I have no idea if she had previous show biz experience), she's a real trouper, with a marvelously open and even fearless approach to the broad slapstick that I found quite striking. It's a cliché, but you're either funny or not; you can't learn it. And Miley Cyrus is funny. Her goofy manner and appealing willingness to look foolish (as well as her quite adept vocalizing, with a funny low, guttural kind of growling that really sells a line) mark her as a comedienne to watch as she matures into her craft.
Her real-life dad, Billy Ray Cyrus, may not be Noel Coward, but he's quite appealing, too, with his inexperience utilized well to deliver a blunt, honest comedy style that suits his character perfectly. There's a scene in the episode, I Want You To Want Me...To Go to Florida where Billy Ray as Robbie has to come to terms with the fact that his little girl isn't so little anymore. Then, real-life home movies of Billy Ray (back during his Achey Breaky Heart days) and Miley are projected, giving the show a surprisingly tender, affectionate feeling (as well as adding yet another self-reflexive layer to the show). There are lots of nice moments like that in Hannah Montana, spread around the wilder, broader comedy elements, making for a sweet, funny "little" show (or probably closer to the truth: a carefully crafted money making machine) that I'll certainly catch again.
Here are the 4 episodes included on Hannah Montana: Life's What You Make It:
Achy Jakey Heart (Part 1)
Miley suddenly has teen film star Jake Ryan (Cody Linley) back in her life - after he persistently pursues her. But will Dad put the breaks on their budding romance?
Achy Jakey Heart (Part 1)
Miley convinces Jake to wear a disguise so they can date like normal teens, but she's in for a shock when she gets a peek at the "real" Jake.
I Want You To Want Me...To Go to Florida
When her dad injures his back, Miley tricks him and her bodyguard Roxy (Francis Callier) into going to a concert by herself.
I Am Hannah, Hear Me Croak
Hannah's singing career is threatened by a throat operation, so a visit in her dreams by her deceased mother (Brooke Shields) comes a most welcome time.
The shot-on-video, 1.33:1 picture image for Hannah Montana: Life's What You Make It isn't the greatest, but that's due to the source material (I hate that fuzzy, blurring look of cheap video shoots). Colors are fine.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround Sound audio mix for Hannah Montana: Life's What You Make It is quite nice, with that infectious title theme bouncy on the speakers. English subtitles are available.
There's a short Backstage Disney promo called, Backstage Pass: The Secrets of Hannah Montana that has the stars of the show (minus Billy Ray) talking about secrets and who keeps the best ones on set. It's a pretty throwaway extra, but I suppose young fans might like it. There's also Billy Ray Cyrus' music video for Ready, Set, Don't Go, a song featured in the I Want You To Want Me...To Go to Florida episode.
That Miley Cyrus kid is pretty fearless in her comedy. I've seen more sitcoms than I'd care to number, so if a 14-year-old novice can get me to laugh out loud on a consistent basis, she's got something. The show itself is broad and obvious, but the cast is energetic, and Miley and her real-life father, Billy Ray Cyrus, have a sweet, funny chemistry that's just right for the series. I highly recommend the actual show, but I question why anyone would want to buy this DVD, when you can watch these shows for free on TV every day (why is Disney screwing around with fans, releasing these puny little four episode compilations of their tween series?). So I'll split the difference between highly recommended and a rental and recommend the Hannah Montana: Life's What You Make It disc, and leave it up to you whether or not it's worth it to actually purchase or rent.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.