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The Portable Door review – a perfectly palatable fantasy adaptation

The Portable Door is a passable fantasy romp with real style – but its tired tropes and lack of stakes drag it down.

Stan’s The Portable Door, a largely Australian production starring internationally recognisable faces, is fine fantasy fare.

Our young, plucky ‘wizard’s apprentice’ is Paul Carpenter – played by the OA‘s Patrick Gibson. In a world much like modern day London, he is clumsy, broke, and desperate for a job. He shares many qualities with the classic Magical Anime Girl: bright eyed, bushy tailed, and perpetually late. All he needs is a bit of toast in his mouth as he runs to school (or in this case, a coffee shop interview). After a dog leads him into a mysterious alleyway, Paul is swept into a world of telepathy, magic doors, and goblins.

Well, not before overcoming my worst nightmare: interviewing for a job he knows nothing about while Christoph Waltz scrutinises him with his piercing eyes.

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After somehow charming an interview panel consisting of Waltz, Sam Neill, Miranda Otto, Rachel House, and Chris Pang, Paul is given an internship at the J.W. Wells & Co. offices. There he shares an office with Sophie Pettingel (Sophie Wilde), a stand-offish high achiever who knows as much about the goings-on of the company as Paul does. That is to say, nothing.

Paul’s new magical job is to read maps. Yep, that’s it. And he apparently has no say in the matter, nor any desire to do anything else. What is his motivation to stay and not get the least bit argumentative about it? Without this being made clear, the story falls flat to low-stakes plotting. It’s not until the third act that things pick up, all thanks to some good ol’ romance being thrown in.

The comment on modern day bureaucracy is obvious. While the young interns try to navigate their new workplace, one of them utters a line along the lines of ‘do you ever think you’re not built for this work-rent-bills-bus thing?’ In that moment I screamed YES at the screen, frightening my cat. So yes, despite the implausible plot involving goblin uprisings and disappearing doors, the film is relatable. The endless rows of carbon copy offices, the typewriters, the pneumatic tubes, the men in suits, it’s Kafka meets Brazil meets … well, real-world companies.

While we’re on pneumatic tubes, I thought the look of the film’s production and feel of the sound design worked very well. The Henson Company involvement becomes apparent when baby dragons begin to appear out of nowhere, and Paul finds a room full of animated eyeballs in jars. Its budget has obviously been well-spent, leading to a slick, immersive appearance that almost hides the dated narrative tropes.

There’s even a few nods to the fact that The Portable Door was filmed in Australia – including a map of Arnhem Land that Paul is working on. But again, because it takes him so long to figure out what he is looking for, the tension is completely lost on the audience.

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Christoph Waltz and Sam Neill in The Portable Door. Image: Stan

Christoph Waltz and Sam Neill, as the CEO and his 2IC respectively, are hilarious. It’s obvious when actors are having a great time playing some zany characters, and here I’ve no doubt they had a ball as these operatic fantasy villains in impeccably tailored suits. Rachel House and Mirando Otto are equally delightful, their screen presence always commanding, and their costumes by far the standout couture of the film.

The second half of the film is a fairly predictable McGuffin chase, with twists and turns that most audiences will see coming. There is however a sequence that borrows heavily from Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., which is a fun little Easter Egg for silent film buffs.

Alas, once the goblins get involved in the story, the comparisons to a certain magical Mr. Potter are inevitable. Except it’s important to note that Harry Potter was first published in 1998, and the Portable Door novel came out in 2003 – so don’t get your knickers in a diagon alley over copyright infringement.

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Another unfortunate similarity that Portable Door shares with Harry Potter is in its arguably antisemitic depiction of Goblins. Criticisms were laid at JK Rowling when it was pointed out that the Gringotts Bank goblins of Harry Potter were remarkably similar to WWII-era Jewish caricatures. Similar (but probably unintentional) mistakes are made in The Portable Door.

Everything from their hooked-nose appearance, to their desire to take over the world, and Mr Wells’ comment that they’re ‘parasites’ shows a regrettable similarity. Aren’t we past this yet?

You can check out The Portable Door in cinemas and on streaming very soon – but once is more than enough.

The Portable Door is in cinemas from 23 March, and available to stream on Stan from 7 April 2023.

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports