So exactly how DO you eat fried worms? Very carefully. Or if you’re the gaggle of pre-teen boys in How to Eat Fried Worms in as many inventive and repulsive ways as possible. Based on the hugely popular novel by Thomas Rockwell the story focuses on Billy (Luke Benward) a new kid at school who on his first day is immediately harassed by bully Joe (Adam Hicks) and his crew. But Billy isn’t the type to just roll over. He decides to stand up for himself and excepts a bet to eat 10 worms in one day. Of course he’s secretly horrified but by god he’s going to go through it—eating one disgusting worm concoction mixed up by Joe’s gang after another. Of course the kids eventually learn some important lessons giving us that certain warm and fuzzy feeling. Right after the queasiness passes. The child actors are all appropriately scrubbed fresh and generally act like regular kids without being too hammy. Benward (Because of Winn-Dixie) does a fine job as the hapless Billy. You definitely have to admire him for sticking to his guns and plowing through those worms no matter how revolting. Hicks (Disney's The Shaggy Dog) is actually refreshing as a bully in the fact he doesn’t exactly look like one besides being slightly taller than the rest of the boys. He’s skinny with red hair and freckles but he throws his weight around effectively. Some of the other boys you might recognize: Alexander Gould (Weeds) plays Twitch aptly named for his spastic behavior; Ryan Malgarini (Freaky Friday) as Benjy the chef du jour; and the most veteran of the kids Hallie Kate Eisenberg (Bicentennial Man TV’s The Miracle Worker) as the lone girl in the group who proclaims regularly “Boys are so weird.” As for the adults Ed’s Tom Cavanagh and According to Jim’s Kimberly Williams stand out as Billy’s parents. Production company Walden Media’s mission to bring wholesome family movies based on kid novels to the big screen is actually a smart move because there is definitely a market for good clean entertainment combined with popular children’s literature. They’ve already had tremendous success with The Chronicles of Narnia as well as with modest hits Because of Winn-Dixie and Holes. Of course these movies (besides maybe the fantastical Narnia) are still glorified after-school TV specials but I suppose with a little more money behind the idea feature films work. How to Eat Fried Worms has been a pre-teen staple on the bookshelves since it was first published in 1973 and writer/director Bob Dolman (The Banger Sisters) certainly captures the novel’s spirit. It’s down to earth has a message we can all relate to—and the worm shenanigans should tickle your youngster’s fancy.
In this film based on the Newbery Award-winning children's book by Kate DiCamillo Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) is a lonely 10-year-old girl who has moved to a sluggish small town in Florida with her preacher father (Jeff Daniels). She has a tough time getting through to her dad: when he is not preaching the gospel he walks around in a haze haunted by the departure of Opal's mother many years before. But when Opal adopts Winn-Dixie named after the supermarket where she found the mutt things start to brighten up for the little girl. With her special companion by her side Opal ends up meeting some pretty interesting people in the town. They include Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint) the local spinster librarian who spins great stories; Otis (Dave Matthews) the shy drifter working at Gertrude's Pet Shop; and Gloria (Cicely Tyson) an old blind lady living with ghosts from her past. Through Opal's sunny disposition and Winn-Dixie doggone tenaciousness they help the town find their joy and their sorrow. And at the same time they mend Opal's troubled relationship with her father. Collectively now awwww!
All the players fit snugly in this warmhearted movie especially the talented young Robb who makes her feature film debut in Winn-Dixie. It's imperative to cast an adorable child and Robb doesn't disappoint keeping things genuinely fresh with the big eyes infectious smile and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm charm. Daniels too doesn't overplay it as the wounded preacher--aptly described by Opal as a turtle--who rarely sticks his head out of his shell. Veterans Eva Marie Saint and Cicely Tyson do what they can with their stereotypical parts as the kindly spinster storyteller and kindly old wise woman respectively. But it's singer-turned-actor Dave Matthews who stands out as the drifter with a troubled past but can "sing most anything " even charming the animals in the pet shop á la the Pied Piper. His poignant performance is up there in the sentiment department.
Here we go with the children and the animals again. Wayne Wang (Maid in Manhattan The Joy Luck Club) is the latest director to take a stab at guiding those most unpredictable of actors. As he explains "Sometimes the going is slow. But then suddenly something magical happens that you couldn't possibly have planned or anticipated." It's true. There are definite moments of inspired sweetness especially between Opal and Winn-Dixie played by a Picardy Shepherd a rare breed of dog from France that has the look of a big old lovable mutt. And of course you can't go too wrong using heart-tugging material based on a beloved children's novel on par with Where the Red Fern Grows and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. That's also Because of Winn-Dixie main problem. Fans of the book will certainly love the film but overall it doesn't really offer anything new in this genre. It's the same general premise about the kid and a dog--or a horse a deer whichever animal works best--who can change the lives of those around them just from being pure of heart. Maybe it's the curmudgeon in me but Winn-Dixie just doesn't stand out among the plethora of films similar to it.