DVD Release Date:  December 5, 2006
Theatrical Release Date:  August 25, 2006
Rating:  PG (for mild bullying and some crude humor)
Genre:  Comedy
Run Time:  94 min.
Director:  Bob Dolman
Actors:  Luke Benward, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Tom Cavanaugh, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Adam Hicks, Ty Panitz, James Rebhorn, Andrea Martin

Fried worms? Ewwwww!

Who'd want to eat one fried worm, much less several? The very idea is gross. Or once was, back in 1973, when Thomas Rockwell's novel, How to Eat Fried Worms, first hit the shelves.

The book went on to sell more than 3 million copies to youngsters captivated by those periodic books-for-sale flyers distributed to elementary-school students across America (your humble movie reviewer was a highly susceptible target, who, decades later, can still picture the cover of his own copy of Rockwell's paperback). Among shelves filled with Mad Libs and Choose Your Own Adventure books, How to Eat Fried Worms, stood out as the crown jewel of any young boy's book collection.

Times have changed. In a world of Survivor "immunity challenges," raunchy music aimed at "tweens," and parents who push their kids to excel in academics and sports from the earliest ages, the ingestion of fried worms represents a throwback to an earlier, more quaint era. Walden Media's production of the Rockwell book captures much of the book's gross-out appeal, but pedestrian direction and a flat TV-movie quality will be evident to parents and other moviegoers tagging along with those in the target demo for this production.

Luke Benward stars as Billy, the new kid in his fifth-grade class, who runs afoul of school bully Joe (Adam Hicks) and his motley crew of subordinates. When Joe and his gang replace Billy's lunch with a thermos-full of worms, the boys brand Billy as "worm boy" and taunt him until, in a moment of pique, Billy insists to Joe that he can eat 10 worms in one day.

Though he instantly regrets the dare, Billy is forced to follow through on the bet. He finds some solace from Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), who admires Billy's willingness to stand up to Joe, as well as from a growing number of students who, inspired by Billy's chutzpah, align themselves with him in opposition to Joe.

Young actors are front and center throughout "Fried Worms," and although Benward, Eisenberg and Hicks give it their all, they are surrounded by a young cast that isn't in the same league. Director Bob Dolman further tests audiences with a cinematic presentation lacking in flair and visual grace, employing the Cinemascope aspect ratio (approximately 2.35:1) to no effect. The filmmaker offers mostly static shots of talking heads, edited together in sometimes jarring fashion.

It's enough to make one long for the subdued direction of Wayne Wang - even at his least interesting - in Because of Winn-Dixie and the lively visuals captured by director Andrew Davis for "Holes." Those two modestly budgeted literary adaptations from Walden (the company's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had a much larger budget) succeeded largely because of graceful and amusing performances from well-known adult cast members - Jon Voight and Sigourney Weaver in Holes, Cicely Tyson and Eva Marie Saint in Winn-Dixie - who added cinematic gravitas to casts filled with unknown youngsters.