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As with High School Musical and The Jonas Brothers, it may be hard for adults without kids in the 7- to 14-year-old age bracket to understand the hype surrounding Disney's Hannah Montana. From its debut on the Disney Channel in March 2006, the show about average teenager Miley Stewart who has a secret identity as international pop star Hannah Montana has been a juggernaut of ratings, publicity, and product branding. Not only has the show's international popularity resulted in the requisite line of dolls and video games, just this week my local paper featured coupons for Hannah Montana nail polish, Hannah Montana facial wash, and even Hannah Montana deodorant.
The show has also been a mega-marketing vehicle for its star, Miley Cyrus, daughter of one-time mullet-wearing, "Achy Breaky Heart" singing country star, Billy Ray Cyrus. At only 16, Cyrus has been ranked as one of Time magazine's most influential people and was No. 35 on Forbes' 2008 list of highest celebrity earners. Her two pop albums have both debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and tickets to her sold-out concerts have been known to fetch prices in the thousands.
It's easy to sniff at such an excessive display of teeny-bopper success, but talk to parents and you'll find a group grateful for the alternative Hannah offers. Dawn Campbell, a Phoenix-area mother of 7- and 11-year-old girls, recently shared with me how difficult it is to shield her children from the popular but inappropriate programming targeted at kids on the ABC Family Channel. With Hannah Montana, she says, she gets something she really can feel comfortable with. "I've watched the show with my girls and while, yes, it's a little dorky, it's also really positive. The Hannah/Miley character doesn't dress provocatively, she doesn't act seductive or try to attract the attention of boys. . . . As a Christian parent, I've seen nothing there that conflicts with my values. The image is of someone who cares about doing the right things and being close to her family."
Billy Ray Cyrus, who stars in the show and the new movie hitting theaters on April 10 as Hannah/Miley's father and manager, says that's the same image he wants his daughter to project for her fans off-screen as well. "As a family, we still go to church, we read the Bible together, and we try to practice our faith in our industry. The Bible says faith without works is dead, so my wife and I encourage Miley and her brothers to show their faith in their work. And Miley will be the first to tell you she's proud of her Lord and where she comes from. . . . Of course I worry about how it will be when they get older," he admits. "But I think our kids have good heads on their shoulders, and I have to believe that they'll keep the way they were raised in their minds and hearts."
Cyrus says he and Miley also look for opportunities to let fans see them giving credit where credit is due. A particular scene in the movie where Cyrus points his hand skyward while watching his daughter sing captured for him what his and Miley's success represents. "My buddy Johnny Cash wrote me a letter in 1992 when things were really starting to heat up for me and reminded me always give thanks to Almighty God from whom all good things come. So that's what that moment was," says Cyrus. "It's like when a guy hits a home run in a baseball game and he'll give a hat tip upward in a gesture of thanks for his blessings. I just did it spontaneously in filming, and the first time I saw it before the final cut, I thought 'Man, I hope they leave that in there,' and sure enough it made it to the screen."
As to questioning from fellow believers on whether Hollywood is any place for the faithful, Cyrus says he left first his own and now his daughter's career path up to God. "After I did my first film I prayed that if God wanted me to be an actor, he would send me the kind of work he would want me to do, and the next week the script for Doc showed up. And Doc [a show about a Christian doctor that aired from 2001 to 2004 on the Pax network] was about hope, faith, and love, something the whole family could comfortably watch. And now with Hannah, we have the chance to offer kids something where they can come in and laugh and sing and enjoy a good time with their families. If they do that, then we've accomplished our mission."
Hannah on the big screen
Let's be honest, there's little to excite anyone over the age of 14 in Hannah Montana's transition to the big screen. Everything that has made the show about average girl Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus) and her alter ego, pop-star Hannah Montana, a hit on Disney makes its way into the movie. The plot lines are hokey, the pratfalls are plentiful, and the acting is, well, to be charitable, the same as it is on television. But these elements are exactly what will have the show's rabid preteen fans turning out by the busloads on opening weekend, not to mention have parents breathing a sigh of relief.
For once, Miley has gotten a bit too big for her britches and become enamored with her life as Hannah. As corrective medicine, her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) trundles her off to her home town of Crowley Corner, Tenn., where she learns what's really important in life. Naturally, along the way a good-looking country boy gets involved, but true to form, the relationship that blossoms between the two is decidedly G-rated.
There is one bright spot for grownups besides the clean content: The original songs are light years better than those featured on the show. Scenes of Miley's Tennessee family jamming on the porch make for a genuinely good time, and when Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus sing a duet called "Butterfly Fly Away," more than one father in the audience will likely look at his daughter and feel a tug at his own heartstrings.