(This post has been REVISED for the sake of clarification.)

When Walden Media came into existence, it promised to focus on bringing high quality, family-friendly entertainment to the screen. And they got off to a great start. Holes was one of the most substantial, intelligent, creative films for young viewers to come along in a while.

But since then, with the somewhat-impressive, somewhat-bloated and misguided adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the lamentable Around the World in 80 Days, the adaptation of Hoot (which had a preview that warned me away from it, and the reviews confirmed my worries), and now How to Eat Fried Worms, it’s pretty clear that the studio could use some time off to reassess exactly how to achieve its original objectives. Especially considering how many more favorite childrens’ books they are hurrying into produciton.

This progression has been the subject of much discussion between the Christian film critics I regularly talk with. And Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) points to this disturbing trend in his review of How to Eat Fried Worms:

“[How to Eat Fried Worms] marks a new low for once-promising Walden Media, which still professes to be education-oriented and once espoused a commitment to faithful adaptations of quality children’s literature. Their last film, Hoot, was a poor adaptation of an admittedly flawed novel by Carl Hiaasen. Fried Worms is a melancholy new landmark, their first bad film from a good book.”

He gives the film a D+.

“Thomas Rockwell’s beloved novella How to Eat Fried Worms is a cheerfully disgusting tale of boyhood bravado and rivalry among friends that winds up going too far. The new film version, by writer-director Bob Dolman (The Banger Sisters), transmogrifies this minor classic into an unpleasant endurance test about coping with bullying by humiliating and degrading yourself before the bullies can do it for you, with a trite, tacked-on message of solidarity that’s about as realistic as a package of Gummi Worms.”

Does it worry anybodoy else that this is the studio committed to bringing the rest of The Chronicles of Narnia to the screen?

Personally, I’m concerned about another childhood favorite… Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising… which is coming soon from Walden. Walden can probably attract big acting talent… but do they have a knockout script that captures that grand mythic quality of Cooper’s books? (There are sequels, so if this is done right, it could be quite a series. It’s interesting, though, that they’re starting with the second book in the series, and not the first.)

And then there’s Charlotte’s Web, one of my all-time favorite stories, which has been turned into a movie that stoops low enough to feature “farting cow” jokes. I distinctly remember speculating about the sorry state of family films a few years back, and joking with some friends about how glad we were that nobody had re-made Charlotte’s Web into a farting animal movie… and when this trailer arrived it was like somebody’d kicked me in the gut. Don’t call me cynical, please… my most pessimistic jokes are coming true with some regularity these days.

Does Walden Media want its reputation to become: “Dedicated to the dumbing-down of great literature, and the cultural bankruptcy of your children”? I don’t think so. But on the map of family films, they’ve changed course, surrendering to the current that flows toward cheap crowdpleasers. I hope they can turn this ship around.

I respect the intentions of the studio, but you know what they say about the road to hell. And they clearly have a lot of money… which will buy you great publicity, big stars, and special effects, but all of that amounts to zzzzzzip if there’s nobody around to write a great adaptation and bring some art to the direction. Somebody needs to bring some guidance, class, and know-how to this studio… and fast.

If you want to see a solid family movie made with class, style, and substance… and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s true… see the new adaptation of Lassie. I can’t review it yet… release day isn’t upon us. But I will say that in ten minutes of that film, I was more impressed with Lassie than I was with Aslan in the entirety of Walden’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I came to trust the folks behind this movie very, very quickly because of their willingness to treat children like intelligent creatures instead of playing to the dumbest, crassest dunce in the corner.

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