The show this movie was drawn from was neither good television nor good music, but I get why it needed to exist. In its own way, it was the show that helped reestablish the long-defunct musical sitcom model that would lead to the creation of shows like Glee and Smash. The musical numbers don’t occur in every episode, but they are built into the premise of the show and occur fairly frequently, and were even released in a tie-in album form. Despite being inferior even to such competitors as High School Musical, the show certainly caught on for a brief window, and its popularity certainly had a role in birthing other, better shows in the same vein.
However, the show is certainly more interesting as a historical link than as a viewing experience. Apart from the occasional musical numbers, the show is pretty much a standard-issue Disney sitcom, with its lame jokes and hammy acting. Miley Cyrus is certainly a better actress than singer—you have to admire the way she throws herself into the role, and with better writing she might actually have been a pretty good sitcom actress, but for all her talent and obvious effort, she can’t make the jokes she gets here funny.
And it doesn’t help that her supporting cast is weak and her real-life father Billy Ray Cyrus, playing a fictionalized version of himself named Robbie Ray Stewart, is such a terrible actor that it actually makes one nostalgic for his singing career. The music itself is bland, forgettable teenybopper pop, and Miley Cyrus is one of the worst singers in the history of pop music—even Britney Spears was more vocally qualified than this.
The show was by no means the worst TV sitcom Disney ever produced (indeed, the progenitor of the genre, Full House, was far harder to watch than this), and apart from two memorably horrible individual moments, there’s nothing record-settingly awful about the movie itself either. That said, it’s still pretty hard to watch if you’re not a preteen girl yourself—like the show, it’s basically two hours of pandering girly wish-fulfillment.
The earnest, melodramatic tone of the film is completely different from the punchline-driven sitcom style of the television series, and the actors are clearly having serious trouble adjusting…all the series regulars who appear here come across as lost and confused, and Miley Cyrus’ performance makes it clear that she has no idea how to act without a laugh track (which explains why her attempts at a movie career went nowhere).
The film does admittedly manage one thing the show never achieved…it contains one genuinely memorable musical number. However, in this case that isn’t a good thing. It’s led into by one of the all-time most terrifying warning lines in movie history—”I’m gonna add a little hip-hop to this hoedown”—and what follows is the only number in this franchise’s history distinct and memorable enough in its sheer awfulness to qualify as a bona fide floppo number.
This film also makes you realize why the show tended to avoid plots related to its actual premise (teen girl with pop-star secret identity) in favor of standard-issue sitcom plots about Miley’s everyday life. The premise of the show is, when you actually think about it, profoundly fucked-up, amounting to emotional child abuse, and this movie takes it to its greatest possible extreme in its horribly-forced tacked-on ending.
The movie was reportedly planned to end with Miley rejecting the Hannah persona and going home to live a normal life, but then her sitcom got renewed for another season, so the final scene was subjected to a horrifying rewrite.
After Miley reveals her identity to a crowd of onlookers and ‘bares her soul’ by singing the utterly banal ballad “The Climb”, an adorable little girl in the audience starts shouting “Please be Hannah!”, the crowd openly rejects her personal revelation and promises to ‘keep her secret’, and Miley puts the wig back on and surrenders to the very pressures that were clearly shown earlier in the movie to be ruining her life. It’s actually a really disturbing ending, and it elevates what might have been a mediocrity akin to the original television show into a genuine disaster.