How to Eat Fried Worms (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What would an after school special look like if it was made by the producers of Fear Factor? Although it's hard to say for sure, How to Eat Fried Worms provides a reasonable approximation. Despite being based on a popular children's book, the motion picture version is a gross-out lover's delight. That's because there's a difference between reading about a character chomping on nightcrawlers and seeing it happen. And these worms aren't just fried. Some are microwaved, blended, slathered under peanut butter or marshmallows, alive and wriggling, folded into an omelet, or cooked in hot sauce.

The film's twin morals - that bullies aren't inherently bad (just misunderstood) and that friendships take time and effort to develop - are in place to counterbalance the bug-eating bias. While little boys may be made of snip and snails and puppy dog's tails, one has to wonder how many of them will be interested in seeing this film. As for little girls - "eeewww!" seems like the most common reaction. How to Eat Fried Worms doesn't have a lot to offer to adults, either - it's too obvious and lacks complexity. It's aimed at pre-teen males and doesn't make many concessions to members of other demographics.

For Billy (Luke Benward), it's a problem that countless children endure at some time during their formative years: being the new kid in school. Friends can be hard to find, and often those who gravitate toward the newcomer are outcasts. In Billy's case, that's true of Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), who's tall and gangly, and Adam (Austin Rogers), who all-but-wears "loser" tattooed on his forehead. After turning a prank back on those who perpetrated it, Billy becomes the target of school bully Joe (Adam Hicks), who challenges him to a bet. If Billy can eat 10 worms in one day without vomiting, Joe will come to school with worms in his pants. If he can't finish the full course or throws up, Billy will have to arrive at school with a squirming load in his shorts. Foolishly, Billy agrees without considering that his notoriously squeamish stomach might not be able to handle one worm, let alone ten.

It's questionable whether fans of Thomas (son of Norman) Rockwell's 1973 book will be happy about some of the changes made by second time director Bob Dolman (who foisted The Banger Sisters on us in 2002). Dolman, however, knows how to direct child actors. As his pint-sized, prepubescent protagonist, Luke Benward is credible, and the supporting roles are capably filled by Adam Hicks (as the not-so-bad bad guy) and Hallie Kate Eisenberg. The adult performers - James Rebhorn as the school principal, Thomas Cavanagh as Billy's father, and Kimberly Williams-Paisley as Billy's mother - aren't given much more to do beyond reciting a few unchallenging lines of dialogue. That's the way it goes in a movie like this, which isn't about or for anyone past puberty.

How to Eat Fried Worms belongs to a vanishing breed - live action family films. Even the best of the genre (like Holes and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) don't draw large audiences, so mediocre productions like this one face an uphill struggle. A viewer's interest in this movie comes down to a simple question: Do you have the interest (and stomach) to watch a boy gobble down worms prepared in ten different ways? That's the sum and substance of what this is about. Truth in advertising applies as much to this title as it does to last week's Snakes on a Plane, and both films are better watched after their theatrical runs have completed.

How to Eat Fried Worms (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2006-08-25
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1