Over the past few years, Walden Media has built a winning reputation of quality in producing faithful film adaptations of celebrated children's books such as Holes, Because of Winn-Dixie and The Chronicles of Narnia, but misses the mark with How to Eat Fried Worms (New Line), a coming-of-age comedy with a message as unappetizing as its title.
Loosely based on the beloved tale by Thomas Rockwell — son of painter Norman Rockwell — the film, as in Walden's last effort Hoot, centers on a new kid's uphill battle to fit in. Things get off to a bad start when weak-stomached Billy (Luke Benward), runs afoul of school bully Joe (Adam Hicks), who fills Billy's lunch thermos with earthworms. To save face, Billy, brags that worms are his favorite snack. Calling his bluff, Joe challenges Billy to eat 10 within the span of one Saturday afternoon.
Apart from the worms, director Bob Dolman alters the story considerably. In Rockwell's version, Billy's dilemma is not the result of bullying but a boyish dare among friends. Billy agrees to the unpalatable diet for $50 so he can buy a bicycle.
The plot-tinkering is of less concern than the new message. Standing up to bullies is well and good, but, troublingly, the movie seems to suggest that the best way to deal with peer pressure is to give in to it. Billy wants to be accepted so badly he'll do anything — even eat worms — to be considered “cool.” (Not the best advice for kids who have to deal with more serious temptations.) In “standing up” for himself, Billy capitulates to Joe's humiliating demands.
Though light-heartedly dramatized, the film's “ick”-factor — several scenes play like a kid's version of “Fear Factor” — may disturb some parents, as the boys devise increasingly nauseating recipes, subjecting the squirmers to microwaves and rolling pins with a cruel glee (a humorous disclaimer assures us no worms were harmed) and take sadistic pleasure in Billy's gastrointestinal torture, however consensual.
These elements are offset by charming performances and family-friendly themes of friendship, honesty and facing one's fears.
At one point, a frustrated Billy tries to explain to outcast ally Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) — the most level-headed of the bunch — why he can't renege on the bet. Many viewers may share her disapproving incomprehension. They may also be tempted to skip lunch.
The film contains scattered mildly crude language and humor, some bullying and gross-out images and a scene of breaking into a shop. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
(This review appears courtesy of US Conference of Catholic Bishop's Office for Film and Broadcasting.)