Not long ago, the titular dish in “How to Eat Fried Worms” would have elicited a repulsed grimace (or at least a raised eyebrow). But a generation inured to gross-out contests on “Survivor” and “Fear Factor” may find eating worms fairly tame stuff. Based on the popular 1973 book about a boy who finds his courage through a worm-eating challenge, this is a decidedly old-fashioned family film that may prove too quaint for modern auds. Unlikely to spawn a gustatory sensation, “Worms” should fare modestly in theaters, finding its real legs as a rental.
Thomas Rockwell’s classic tale (worldwide sales top 3 million) harks back to a more innocent time, faintly recalling the era immortalized in his father Norman’s Saturday Evening Post covers. As adapted and helmed by Bob Dolman (“The Banger Sisters”), the tale’s anachronistic innocence remains refreshingly intact; whether kids will take the bait is another matter.
A jaunty animated title sequence indicates that 11-year-old Billy Forrester (Luke Benward) and his family have moved to a new town. At school, Billy is ostracized by freckle-faced bully Joe Guire (Adam Hicks), whose attempt to sabotage Billy’s lunch (with a thermos of live worms) leads to a cafeteria skirmish.
Joe dares Billy prove his mettle: Eat 10 worms by 7 p.m. Saturday. The loser must come to school with worms in his pants.
With the exception of the gawkily tall Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), Billy is friendless, so he has little to lose. His mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and dad (Tom Cavanagh) are too busy tending to his annoyingly adorable 5-year-old brother (Ty Panitz) to notice Billy’s struggles. After an aborted attempt to run away, Billy decides to face the challenge.
Joe enlists a gang of kids with monikers like Twitch (Alexander Gould) and Techno Mouth (Andrew Gillingham) to oversee the challenge. With Joe’s henchman Benjy (Ryan Malgarini) serving as chef, each earthworm concoction is more vile than the last, until every culinary permutation is exhausted. The worms are not just fried, but boiled, stewed, pureed, nuked: “Radioactive Slime Delight” and “The Barfmallow” are fully deserving of their names.
Paradoxically, the worm-eating dare, though disgusting to watch — kudos to the prosthetic worm creators; the crawlers look appallingly real — is the film’s most enlivened sequence. Dolman has wisely condensed the challenge into one day (in the book it takes two weeks) and fleshed out the motley gang to make the contest more cinematic. He also added the sensible Erika to stimulate female interest.
Other than the gifted Eisenberg, who is blossoming into an offbeat dimpled beauty, the child thesps resort to a lot of mugging, which soon wears thin. As with many family pics, grown-ups are marginalized, though rarely are decent actors like Cavanagh, Williams-Paisley and James Rebhorn (as the school principal) wasted as fully as they are here.
As deftly captured in Richard Rutkowski’s lens, Caty Maxey’s color-splashed production design evokes a bygone era — one in which an 11-year-old can (gasp!) be left alone to babysit his 5-year-old brother. Animated sequences are more effective as title and credit bookends than in one awkwardly inserted fantasy.