How to Build a Better Boy
Written by Jason Mayland
Directed by Paul Hoen
Disney Channel gender-swaps Weird Science and also turns it into a statement about government drones, somehow doing a better job than the Robocop remake. I’m not really sure how that happened, but it did. Probably because How to Build a Better Boy is actually fun to watch, despite it’s goofy origin and Disney squeaky-clean upper class template.
Gabby Harrison (China Anne McClain) and Mae Hartley (Kelli Berglund) are smart over-achieving high school sophomores that finish calculus tests in under 9 minutes (to the annoyance of their peers!) Gabby is 100% focus on her career track and saving the world through being incredibly awesome and smart, while Mae is starting to get distracted by boys. Particularly the star quarterback Jaden, who she tutors in math. Jaden may or may not have feelings for her, but that’s not the problem. The problem is Jaden is currently dating cheerleader Nevaeh Barnes (Ashley Argota), who is 100% focused on how awesome Nevaeh Barnes is and needs Jaden to be her perfect accessory while she becomes Homecoming Queen.
Thus Nevaeh Barnes and her posse humiliate Mae in front of the entire school (and Jaden!), the school having nothing better to do than watch two of the students be sassy to each other. Mae counters by pretending she has an awesome boyfriend who’s Alaskan, thus that’s why no one knows him. Even though everyone knows she’s lying, this puts Gabby on the thinking train and soon she’s scheming to create a virtual boyfriend for Mae. Mae’s dad does video game research, so Gabby’s plan is to hack into his company and use the AI models to create an AI boyfriend. This plan would be clever, except for the fact Mae’s dad secretly works for the government and is creating an autonomous robot fighting soldier/drone. A little obvious plot magic later and suddenly all the traits Mae wanted in a boyfriend are now encoded in this drone, unknowingly to the girls, and the result causes the computers at home to get fried.
The next day at school, suddenly the fake boyfriend Albert Banks has a huge social media profile and is now friends with half of the school. Nevaeh begins mocking the obviously fake profile, when suddenly Albert Banks (Marshall Williams) himself drives up in a Lamborghini. As he’s totes handsome and charming, suddenly every single girl is in love with Albert because he’s emotionally ambidextrous and a boy boy but sensitive and unnnnnhhhhhuuuuhhh and other strange sounds. Albert only has eyes for Mae, and proceeds to become the most perfect boyfriend ever, with picnic lunches and singing Selena Gomez in the park.
This causes problems with Gabby, as Mae spending all her time with Albert breaks up their scholarship dream team. It also causes problems with Mae’s brother Bart (Matt Shively), who is let in on the secret of Albert in order to help cover things up. He’s the wacky character common in these films, complete with the hat all the wacky friends wear. A cool running joke is he just bought his first car, which everyone thinks is a cab.
The military is rather upset over the theft of their technology, and it’s also caught the attention of terrorist group Black Sigma, who were already planning to steal the X-17 prototype, and still plan to do so while the prototype is Albert. Albert’s super skills get him on the football team, causing his team to win the first Homecoming they’ve ever won, but also causes mass chaos when the terrorists fire an EMP at him. Soon Albert has reverted back to his soldier programming and is running around the world saving the day, and Mae is sad. Will Albert be able to break free of his programming enough to still take her to the homecoming dance and then they have the perfect kiss? Hey, this is a Disney film! Though that’s not the end of the story…
How to Build a Better Boy sidesteps gender roles with jokes while still engaging in some gender clique ideas. Gabby quips that “Boyfriends are like old smart phones – buggy, they think too slow, and crash when you need them the most.” Gabby has all the best quips, it helps that her obvious romance is more background so the plot can play out and the actors are free to be cool.
Nevaeh Barnes continues the tradition of hilarious cartoonishly evil high school villains. She takes great glee in mocking Mae in front of her posse, even using the phrase “sad face emoji”! Weirdly, despite being selfish and vain and spiteful, she not that bad of a girlfriend, screaming at the football audience to cheer for her boyfriend instead of Albert and running into the huddle to argue with Mae and Gabby about Albert taking Jaden’s thunder. Of course, that’s all so it will reflect back on her, but still… Ashley Argota is having a gleeful time chewing the scenery and whatever else she can get her hands on. PS: Nevaeh is Heaven spelled backwards.
Albert is the perfect cute and nonthreatening Edward Cullen with blonde hair, blue eyes, and big muscles. He’s scarily cute. Just the fact that he exists turns Mae into a clique hero, she finds herself having a group of girls following her around and even dressing like her in a vain hope that they can score their own Albert. Albert’s obsessive love does sort or wear thin, he likes her because he’s programmed to, and spending all the time focusing on what he’s doing for Mae strips him of any real personality. Which makes the ultimate conclusion a bit less impactful emotionally speaking.
Despite the fun, How to Build a Better Boy is hampered by the Disney origin. The House of Mouse spawning point keeps scenes from becoming too serious, as despite the terrorists attack on the high school and the military brandishing weapons against civilians on US soil while chasing down an escaped lethal weapon with independent AI that has gone off mission, the real drama stays Mae’s romantic feelings. The drones reality is hinted more than stated, and the terrorists are more bumbling than scary. The army does turn hilarious as they try to plan a perfect romantic evening, a sort of u-turn from their norm. There is even a “We’re in!” during the hacking scene, for goodness sakes!
Beyond the flaws, things still manage to be worth the investment. Gabby and Mae are highly skilled role models for girls interested in STEM fields, as well as wearing the latest fashions and snagging cute guys. Enough stuff is thrown in to make you think as well as let you have fun. Perfect Disney fluff with just enough heart to pump it above the flock.
Rated 7/10 (drawing crush, spell check nightmare, free the frog, custom plate, signage, army lady, new fan)
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