As a boy, Judge Dennis Prince was nearly force-fed a bit of sun-dried movement from his front sidewalk. To this day he still maintains an aversion to peanut clusters and Almond Roca.
New town. New friends. New menu.
As Summer 2006 began to wind down, kids once again moped and pouted at the prospect of yet another school year behind a desk and under the command of the omnipresent bell. Anxious for any diversion that might stave off the reality of reading and 'rithmetic, director Bob Dolman delivered a final fantasy that just might have sustained the temporary nirvana of the fleeting summer vacation. You see, to the grammar school set, anything is better that going back to school, even the prospect of How to Eat Fried Worms.
Facts of the Case
Billy Forrester (Luke Benward, Because of Winn-Dixie) is the new kid in school. Like any normal boy going into fifth grade, he's duly anxious about getting to know the other kids and having to restart his life. Unfortunately, he gets off on the wrong foot—by no fault of his own—when the resident bully, Joe (Adam Hicks, The 12 Dogs of Christmas) rallies his "team" into quasi-hazing tactics. After discovering his thermos has been filled with a clog of writhing earthworms, Billy defies Joe's aggressions by stating that worms are no big deal and, in fact, he eats them all the time. That's fine with Joe, as he ratchets up the affront to bet Billy he can't eat 10 worms over the course of a single day. Flustered, Billy accepts the challenge despite the fact that he suffers a well-chronicled past of stomach upset. In typical oneupsmanship, he bets that if he does consume all 10 slimy snacks, then Joe has to come to school with his pants full of worms. The bet is on and when the agreed upon day arrives, Billy comes face to face with the gravity of his wager but also learns even more about the value of friendship, standing up for oneself, and upholding his word.
No doubt about it, How to Eat Fried Worms is a kid's movie—and what's wrong with that? It's chock-full of gross and inane antics that stir irrepressible excitement in the 7-to-11-year-old crowd, mainly boys, natch. Recall your own youth, gentlemen, and you might confess that if you were told something stunk, you'd sniff at it curiously just to be sure. If told something looked totally gross, you'd not be denied your chance to get a close-up gander for yourself. And if something were determined to taste indescribably gross, you'd take the dare to at least give it a lick (well, sometimes). To wrap it up in a greasy old barf bag, that's what this picture's all about—a challenge of the senses. The movie in and of itself is something of a "dare," tasking viewers to watch young Billy gobble down all different sorts of worms, each shown in excruciating close up to ensure we won't miss even the tiniest crunch, squish, or squirt. Of course, simply gobbling down a wriggling worm would lose its novelty after the first or second episode, so Billy is tasked with ingesting the creatures only after they've been dutifully prepared in numerous stomach-churning entrees. Much like any kid has mixed and mashed together all manner of incongruent ingredients to arrive at a "special recipe" of blobby or blended ick, so too must Billy endure the same concoctions around his worm cuisine. And who among us, at that tender age, hasn't done the same, be it on the giving or receiving end?
The film gets its real appeal through the kids themselves. To simply parade numerous gut-gurgling gross-outs in front of the camera surely would pan out if not for the characters behind the shenanigans. Thankfully, How to Eat Fried Worms delivers a competent cast of kids, the sort that you surely knew yourself when you were among the diminutive desk set. Billy is simply "everykid," not too brash, not too shy, and just looking to get along. Joe is the consummate kid bully, a threat only through his aggressive tactics and mythical malevolence yet unlikely to truly have committed the fabled nasties that he so eagerly collects credit for. Erika is the typical over-tall girl who's the most mature and reasonable of the bunch yet must endure the childish taunts of her undersized classmates. Adam is the clod, a bit overweight, under rested, and sort of grubby. He'd be happy to be your friend but he likely has some odor about him that elicits caution over getting too close to him. Twitch is the kid with perpetual bed-head and a whole range of quirky, almost spastic, behavioral ticks that makes him something of a curiosity and of whom you'd probably be embarrassed to take home to meet your folks. The rest of the kids—Plug, Benjy, Bradley, Donny, and Techno-Mouth (he wears braces)—are the sorts that fill grammar school classrooms year in and year out. They're utterly authentic and give credence to the gooky goings-on for the duration of the film. Their character arcs are more than believable mainly because we've all witnessed the very same for ourselves. To that end, the film's screenplay, inspired by Thomas Rockwell's 1973 book of the same name, is simply an unfettered exposé in the sort that had Art Linkletter long ago professing, "kids say the darndest things."
The young actors on hand nail their roles rather handily since director Bob Dolman has carefully cast each, allowing them to simply be themselves (and to which the kids admit during the disc's running commentary). Luke Benward is consistent and convincing in his portrayal of Billy, attempting to feign maturity while clearly cracking to the peer pressure that prompts the film's outlandish premise. Adam Hicks makes for an excellent bully, Joe, who is, as we learn, bullied himself. The actor's slight lisp adds believability since it suggests a frailty—a potential Achille's heel—to which the boy most overcompensate lest he become victimized himself. Austin Rogers, as the disheveled Adam, could pass as a younger version of the late Vincent Schiavelli (you know, the goofy science teacher from Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Naturally, he's among the first of the boys to befriend Billy, somewhat to Billy's own chagrin. Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Erika is likewise authentic, the first to actually accept new kid Billy and, naturally, the one who Billy publicly rebukes in an ill-advised attempt to gain favor with the other kids. She's wiser than the gaggle of goofballs, yet she maintains a demure style imposed by the cultural constraints of the schoolyard (and though you may disagree with that characterization at an adult level, it is the reality of childhood). And so, too, do the rest of the actors fill their niches well, providing the various ingredients that make up a troupe of youngsters.
As a film experience, don't expect anything deeply moving or revelatory; this isn't any sort of Stand By Me coming-of-age odyssey. Rather, How to Eat Fried Worms stands committed to serving its target audience and it does so unfailingly. For all of its silliness, mock heroics, and miscreant attitudes, it is genuine; just watch a group of boys goofing around and you'll see for yourself. Dolman is able to rally the kids in a way that he acts as scoutmaster, encouraging them to be themselves, to break out of their shells, and to have fun. And, when given that freedom, these kids do exactly what comes from the age group. Naturally, like-minded kids will enjoy the adventure at hand, likely in strong resemblance of one of their own Saturday morning missions. Parents will also get a bit of a kick out of the show, surely drawing familiar connections via their kids' adventures or in fond remembrance of their own prior exploits of so many years past. If you go in with expectations of a traditional Saturday matinee experience—the sort that included popcorn throwing, Jujube flinging, and plenty of catcalls—then you won't be disappointed. If you crave anything more cerebral, you're best served to select another feature from the marquee.
New Line releases How to Eat Fried Worms in another of their well-constructed Platinum Series discs. It begins with a very competent feature transfer, framed at 2.35:1 and generated using an expectedly pristine source print. There are no signs of damage and degradation here and the actual transfer is free of any noticeable compression artifacts or unwanted over-enhancement attributes. The detail level is sharp and the color saturation is excellent, providing every gory nuance to the sickly slick grubs. The audio is surprisingly full in the onboard Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix. The dialogue is properly anchored in the center channel, while the front left and right channels provide appropriate directional effects. The rear channels are busy providing ambient effects, including the din of kids' chatter and the various external sounds as well as providing the bulk of the film score. The low end doesn't play much of a part here, but its understandable given this isn't any sort of extreme action picture.
The disc has plenty of fun extras beginning with a commentary track in which Bob Dolman again rallies many of his kid cast members to speak to the film. This is a very genuine discussion that isn't extremely informative since Dolman uses it as an opportunity to let the kids themselves talk to their experiences with the filmmaking process. It's enjoyable to listen to as he actively encourages the various kids to speak to their particular scenes, again much like a scoutmaster would motivate his troop. Next up is a blooper reel that features several of the flubs and miscues, a short but fun little ditty. Then, Worm Cuisine provides us a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the various worms that Luke Benward gobbles down over the course of the film. Movie Making Made Fun is another behind-the-scenes peek at the cast and crew and provides a fun look at the good times they all had making the picture. A short music video, "Worm Guts," is up next rounded out by a look at a handful of deleted scenes. Plug the disc into your PC and the usual InterActual player will allow you to watch the film while reading along with the script. In all, it's a full amount of content that will satisfy your own worm cravings.
If you're looking for some simple-minded fun and want to treat your aptly-aged kids to a bit of spew-worthy spectacle, How to Eat Fried Worms is the best choice on the movie menu. True vermiphobes (those who fear worms) are advised to skip this one, though.
Not guilty, just gross. Dare ya to watch it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Audio commentary by Director Bob Dolman and kids from the cast
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