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What makes an 11-year-old laugh? Worms, of course

By: Mark Moorehead

Aug 26, 2006

No, How to Eat Fried Worms is not the title of a New Age survivalist cookbook highlighting its signature protein dish. Instead, it’s a new children’s film guaranteed to curb your appetite.

The film – which is not animated – should come with a warning: We recommend you avoid viewing this film immediately after lunch or dinner, or while fishing.

Written and directed by Bob Dolman, the story is based on an 11-year-old boy’s first day at a new school and the consequences of a confrontation he has with the schoolyard bully.

Immediately upon his arrival at school, Billy (Luke Benward), apprehensive and sullen from having to leave all his friends from his old school, is greeted with hostility by everyone he meets, including the principal and his fifth-grade teacher.

And, he receives an unwelcome gift in the cafeteria from the local freckle-faced bully Joe Guire (Adam Hicks) and Joe’s loyal followers in the form of a Thermos full of live worms.

However, Billy surprises the kids by instinctively flinging one of the creepy-crawlys into Joe's face to the delight of Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), a tall lanky girl pleased that someone has finally stood up to Joe.

In turn, Joe insults Billy by calling him “Worm Boy” and, in an effort to save face and deflect the name-calling, Billy inadvertently agrees to eat 10 worms in one day. Joe bets Billy can’t do it. The loser has to go to school with his pants full of live worms. Simple enough plot. Yet, there’s one catch. Billy has an ultra-sensitive stomach and can’t keep down ordinary food.

To our utter astonishment, Billy musters his inner strength and manages to eat his first live worm without his stomach rejecting it. This does not bode well for bully Joe.

So Joe decides to prepare the worms in the most disgusting methods he can dream up and enlists his loyal gang of followers to assist him in the effort. This is the point in the film where I’ll admit I had to close my eyes a few times. The large dangling earth worms are not just fried; they are boiled, stewed, pureed in a blender and micro-waved.

Yet, in spite of a weak stomach and the visibly disgusting concoctions, Billy doesn’t try to worm out of the bet. We are witnesses to Billy’s determination in facing adversity with increasingly more unpleasant scenes of worms a la carte at a variety of venues, including a witchy character’s bait shop, the family kitchen and a restaurant.

During the course of this progressive and segmented dine out, Joe’s team members slowly shift alliances as more of them admire Billy’s spunk for eating worm after worm no matter how awful the presentations.

How to Eat Fried Worms is essentially a pre-teen’s version of Fear Factor with an underlying theme of courage and doing the right thing.

What’s missing from this playground double-dare story is a dramatic finish. I’ll admit I was expecting more. But, that’s an adult’s perspective. My 11-year-old son is mystified by my criticism. He liked the movie.

Critics have labeled this an old-fashioned family film too quaint for the modern youth audience raised on a steady diet of bathroom humor flicks. I disagree.

Although How to Eat Fried Worms was released as a book in 1973, it sold 3 million copies and continues to sell briskly. Clearly, boys don’t change that much from generation to generation. They still like to see and talk about gross things. They still dare each other, and they still confront bullies on the playground.

Simple stories, simply said, still sell.

General Audiences: B

Coming-of-age story. Target audience is adolescent boys. Gross-out humor not for everyone. No violence, objectionable language or unsuitable subject matter.

Family Audiences: B

This is a quintessential family film based on the popular 1973 Thomas Rockwell book by the same name. Rated PG: Mild bullying and crude humor.

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