By Pete Vonder Haar | August 27, 2006

Billy (Luke Benward) has a lot of problems. His family is moving to a new town, meaning he’ll be attending a new school, and he’s not quite the social extrovert his little brother Woody is. To complicate matters, Billy has something of a nervous stomach and pukes if you look at him funny. As you can imagine, this isn’t the best combination for the new kid in town. Such is the vast tapestry that unfurls as we sit down to watch “How to Eat Fried Worms.”

On his first day at his new school, Billy simultaneously befriends the Tall Awkward Girl, Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), and earns the wrath of the Joe, the school bully. Billy’s attempts to coast through the day without drawing much notice (the supreme ambition of all non-alpha male schoolboys) is foiled when Joe and his cronies confront him on his way home from school and goad him into an unsavory wager: Billy has to eat ten earthworms the coming Saturday or suffer the ignominy of walking through the school with his pants full of these selfsame invertebrates.

Based on Thomas Rockwell’s 1973 book of the same name, “Worms” does deviate from the source material in a few key ways. In the book, Billy has 15 days to make it through 15 worms, and he was allowed to prepare them in whatever way he felt could make the chore more (you’ll forgive the _expression) “palatable.” His antagonists were also free to engage in subterfuge (such as faking letters from a doctor) in order to foil him. By compressing the events into one day, writer/director Bob Dolman eliminates a large part of what the book so engaging. Instead of acting devious and spiteful (like real children) the way they did in the book, the kids in the movie once again behave the way Hollywood would like us to believe children really do: occasionally mischievous and rowdy, but generally decent human beings that can be relied on to do the right thing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’m not sure why I bother to review kids’ movies, honestly. 90% of you reading this are doing so because you have a pre-teen child or close relative that’s forcing you to take them to “How to Eat Fried Worms” this weekend. The other 10% probably can’t leave the house due to that ankle sensor anyway.

And even if you could, the terms of your parole usually forbid you from going within 1000 feet of a theater.

As for the movie itself; the direction is lackluster, the child actors – with the exception of Eisenberg – are pretty dismal, and the whole thing is about 15 minutes too long. Still, there are ample references to puking and we get to see earthworms cooked and devoured in a variety of allegedly disgusting ways. Happily, the kids in the cast aren’t simply miniature adults, and if they aren’t as evil as actual children, at least they aren’t given to pumping their fists and yelling “Yessss!” like a horde of Macaulay Culkins. Kids in the 6-12 year old range who drag you to it will have a good time, while you can take some meager comfort in thinking, “Hey, at least it ain’t “Lady in the Water.”

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