Tech-savvy teen friends Gabby Harrison (China Anne McClain) and Mae Hartley (Kelli Berglund) envision a bright future for themselves as pioneering scientists if they can get through high school. Yet while Gabby sees boys as a needless distraction, Mae is hopelessly infatuated with handsome quarterback Jaden Stark (Noah Centineo). Unfortunately Jaden opts to go to prom with mean cheerleader captain Nevaeh Barnes (Ashley Argota) instead, leaving Mae heartbroken. To cheer her up, Gabby hacks the video game company run by Mae's father, James Hartley (Roger Bart) and uses its super-computer to create the perfect boyfriend. What they don't know is James is not a game designer at all but rather a scientist who creates combat robots for the military. As a result his latest robotic super-soldier turns up at school the next day as Albert (Marshall Williams), a super-hot, macho yet kind and sensitive boyfriend who dotes on Mae's every need. While Mae ends up the envy of every other girl at school, Gabby tries to figure out what is going on. Neither girl realizes a team of evil secret agents and the American military are after Albert too.
Despite featuring teenagers as protagonists Disney tween television movies are aimed at a younger age range and skewed towards their fantasies of what teen life is like. Hence you are unlikely to find any of the insight, emotional honesty or occasional profundity present in movies like Mean Girls (2004) or Bandslam (2009). In fact a little gem of a movie called Little Manhattan (2005) starring a young Josh Hutcherson proved it is possible to deal with adolescent romance in an insightful, witty and sensitive way but that is an avenue the Disney Channel have yet to explore. In How to Build a Better Boy screenwriter Jason Maynard gathers some promising themes (reversed gender roles, romantic expectation versus reality, friends unconsciously manipulating other friends, parental dishonesty) then sanitizes them leaving the film with all the depth of a cut-out paper doll.
Even by Disney's saccharine standards this is one seriously sugary confection with pastel-shaded production designing providing a bubblegum backdrop to this trite tale of polka-dot clad schoolgirls going ga-ga over their boy toy. Certainly Marshall Williams encapsulates the sort of bland beefcake one might imagine a tween girl would dream up for herself. Yet while it is quite funny to watch Albert melt the hearts of every girl at school with his sensitivity and devotion to Mae, he seems a tad too self-aware and has too much personality considering he is a robot. The plot comes across like a Disney tween variation on Making Mr. Right (1987) mixed with the hardware goes rogue premise of Japanese anime Madox-01 (1987) only with even less depth. As a comedy the film's best asset is Matt Shively, one of the stars of Nickelodeon's genuinely witty tween sitcom True Jackson V.P. He plays Mae's brother who harbours a not-so-secret crush on Gabby. Shively's easygoing comic charm melds well with seasoned character actor Roger Bart. Their scenes stand-out. On a side-note, Shively's True Jackson V.P. co-star Ashley Argota essays an atypical 'villain' role. While she acquits herself well it has become somewhat disconcerting just how many Disney tween films cast an Asian actress as the mean girl. What is going on there?
Disney sitcom stars China Anne McClain and Kelli Berglund have great chemistry. Yet while they nail the odd funny line (e.g. when Gabby likens high school boys to old smartphones: they are slow, riddled with bugs and keep crashing) and hit some welcome emotional notes in a small moment towards the finale, their personal plot-lines prove all too predictable and shallow. While it is likely the target audience of hot-boy-crazy tween girls will still lap this up, one can't help but feel they deserve a much smarter and wittier comedy.