Adapted from Tom Holt’s 2003 young-adult fantasy novel, this is a passable attempt at kickstarting a new Harry Potter-style franchise set in a fusty-quirky institution, dosed up with extra Gilliamesque grotesquery. Co-produced by the Jim Henson Company, the production design is poky and intense, and the cast – with Christoph Waltz and Sam Neill larking it up – give it their all. But amid all this clutter, it sometimes has trouble moving its story forward.
The Portable Door has a nice conceit: the venerable London corporation of JW Wells & Co is responsible for engineering all the daily incidents of coincidence and serendipity that happen in urban life. Not that wet-behind-the-ears intern Paul Carpenter (Patrick Gibson), desperate for any gig, knows the company’s raison d’etre when he signs up.
He appears to have no discernible talents whatsoever, unlike his fellow newbie Sophie (Sophie Wilde), whose ability as an empath is soon put to use in manipulating the unsuspecting public. So he’s relieved when CEO Humphrey Wells (Waltz) tasks him with finding a magic door that has gone awol somewhere in the grotto-like premises.
Director Jeffrey Walker blazes at a fun clip, with the wide-eyed Paul constantly taken aback at this corporate Hogwarts, full of spooling dot-matrix printers and arbitrary rules, like never staying past 5pm. But this whimsical feeding frenzy gradually smothers proceedings; with the need to keep Wells’s wider scheming hidden, it doesn’t snag our interest much with how his skulduggery would interface with the modern Muggle world (briefly, he has very contemporary designs on expanding the company’s mission of “influence”).
So instead the film remains weirdly fixated on the whole door thing, a largely meaningless MacGuffin with a sign marked “madcap” hanging off it. If the tension flickers on and off, though, The Portable Door never entirely loses its edge, thanks largely to an irascible Neill as Wells’s right-hand man, and a sharp-tongued sensibility reminiscent of Roald Dahl. But it doesn’t feel like quite enough to give it a permanent seat at the YA high table.