Twelve year old Paul (Matt Dill) loves fantasy stories and games of make-believe but struggles finding his way in the real world. Uncertain about his future and awkward around others he decides to see if the wonderful stories he reads can come true by proving the existence of trolls. And where else can one find a troll but under a bridge? At first Paul's seemingly fruitless search leads to two oddball encounters. The first aboard a private jet where he meets an arrogant, cigar-chomping Rich Man (James Karen) who made his fortune building bridges and now employs his wisecracking computer to locate a mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Afterwards Paul bumps into a jittery scientist (Josh Mostel) with yet another smart-alecky computer involved in state-of-the-art rainbow research. Eventually Paul wanders into an enchanted forest where he befriends the affable Ofoeti (Sam Waterston) who, despite the boy's skepticism, claims to be a troll. With the aid of beautiful mermaid Kalotte (Susan Anton), Ofoeti brings Paul to an undersea kingdom where children live in eternal happiness free from the cares of the real world. However, it happens the Rich Man intends to invade Ofoeti's realm on learning Kalotte's hair is spun from gold from the end of the rainbow. Before long Paul learns the fate of his newfound friend rests in his hands.
Back in the mid-Eighties the PBS network co-produced a series called WonderWorks with the Walt Disney Company wherein acclaimed children's books were adapted into short made for TV movies. By far the most popular of these was Anne of Green Gables (1985) which spawned several sequels and spin-offs but other examples included adaptations of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, The Box of Delights, a controversial early version of Bridge to Terabithia (1985) starring Annette O'Toole and war drama Miracle at Moreaux (1985) with Loretta Swit. Rather than a children's book, The Boy Who Loved Trolls was actually adapted from the play "Ofoeti" penned by poet and novelist John Wheatcroft. An early adaptation was made for television in 1966 with Rene Auberjonois in the title role but the 1984 version is more fondly regarded by fans who caught this at an impressionable age, partly on account of its eccentric imagination though also the slightly jarring presence of stars like Sam Waterston. Waterston did this low-budget shot-on-video children's film the same year he acted in The Killing Fields and invests his role with just as much sincerity. TV staple Susan Anton gives an equally engaging, humorous performance as clumsy mermaid Kalotte while star-spotters will delight in seeing a young William H. Macy as talking turtle Socrates. Keep those eyes peeled for wizard of gore Tom Savini, of all people, as a biker who somewhat sarcastically advises Paul where to find a troll.
Hailing from an era when children's television could get downright avant-garde and experimental, The Boy Who Loved Trolls carefully balances psychological insight into adolescent anxieties with a pleasing surrealist streak and witty humour without edging into fantasy-puncturing sarcasm. Like The Wizard of Oz (1939) the film draws its young hero into a dreamlike fantasy world that enables them to physicalize their anxieties before returning home with a new sense of purpose. Adapted for the screen by James DeVinney, the script is earnest and occasionally tips into cheesiness as result of an oh-so-Eighties synth score (that nevertheless has some charm and became a sought-after collector's item on CD) and a trippy MTV style montage where Susan Anton performs a power ballad, medieval-garbed children dance merrily and Paul plays basketball with Larry Harris. Stripped of its fantasy trappings, the concept of a man bringing children to a secret alcove where they never have to grow up has some troubling connotations but the sincerity of its message keeps cynicism at bay. Paul learns growing up does not mean you have to lose your idealism and become selfish, greedy or cynical but also that confining oneself to a childhood point of view is just as limiting. The low-budget ingenuity of Harvey S. Laidman goes a long way to creating a colourful and compellingly strange fantasy with a warm heart and a smart sense of humour.