Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts review – that same old magic

January 2, 2022
Jonathon Wilson 0
Film, Film Reviews, HBO Max, Streaming Service


Fun anecdotes, undeniable chemistry, and an earnest sense of heart help to keep the magic alive.

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Fun anecdotes, undeniable chemistry, and an earnest sense of heart help to keep the magic alive.

Only rarely will one ever encounter a piece of media so finely calibrated to evoke nostalgia. For anyone who came of age alongside or slightly ahead of the witches and wizards in J.K. Rowling’s uber-successful fantasy series, Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is like being sent a personal invitation to Hogwarts yourself – or perhaps to the childhood that let you believe it was only a quarter of a train station platform away. That tinkling theme music. The halls. The décor. The wax-sealed envelopes. It’s all here, and most of it is in the first five minutes. So, too, are the stars – Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley (or Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, as they’re perhaps less commonly known.) Everything is left unchanged, untouched, as if nobody has been in the Hogwarts dining hall or the Gryffindor common room since we left.

It’s the faces that give it away. These are adults now, whereas once they weren’t, and you can’t half tell. Emma Watson might be aging like wine, but I’m not sure the others are, and either way, we aren’t used to seeing these people as grown-ups, despite all the on-screen work they’ve done since 2011 when they parted ways with the franchise. For many of us, these will always be the wide-eyed kids who boarded the Hogwarts Express in 2001 and were transported to superstardom, and one of the highlights of this special reunion documentary is that many of the films’ cast and crew feel that way too.

There’s always a sense in any reunion, especially a televised one, that everyone is feigning their happiness to see each other. When you think about it, a movie set can’t be all that different from an office building or a construction site or whatever. I know I wouldn’t be eager to see my colleagues from 2011, at which point I was working behind the bar of a hotel for five quid an hour, being treated like the rats that I know for a fact were chilling in the cellar. But I think the difference here is that the young cast literally grew up in the care of people like Chris Columbus, Robbie Coltrane, and Maggie Smith, and among similarly aged peers who were in the same boat. I still have friends from high school. When you frame it that way, it makes more sense.

And the more sense it makes, the more earnest Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts feels. These are real friends who got to share an incredibly important period of their formative years together. Their misty-eyed reminiscences are genuine. They may or may not have known at the time what kind of cultural phenomenon they were a part of (certainly not at first) but they knew that what they were doing would, at the very least, be important to them. They’re as happy to see each other as you imagine Harry, Ron, and Hermione would be. And that has to count for something.

It’s just as well since the entire reunion is really just a collection of warm conversations, direct-to-camera interviews, and fun anecdotes, some of which are new (or at least new to me). The lingering toxicity surrounding J.K. Rowling means she’s completely absent aside from a snippet of 2019 interview footage in which she explains how difficult it was to find the right Harry Potter, and while she’s mentioned by name a few times, nobody dares linger on the topic for long. However you feel about her views, it’s undeniably weird for her to no longer have a place in the universe she created. But even the hint of controversy would have ruined the intended effect of this reunion, which is all about tearful reminiscences and the important lessons learned from the memories. Rowling was supposedly quite alright with the extent of her inclusion, which given the fact that most of the people featured have publicly denounced her might even be true.

What remains, then? Well, there are some amusing anecdotes, particularly the revelations about Radcliffe’s understandable crush on Helena Bonham Carter and Watson’s on Tom Felton, the latter of which’s “nothing ever happened between us!” is sure to ignite rampant speculation online. Mike Newell broke a couple of ribs while trying to teach James and Oliver Phelps, aka Fred and George Weasley, how to convincingly wrestle. It’ll never cease to amaze me how much Rupert Grint essentially is Ron Weasley. And the abundance of charm and charisma throughout keeps the whole thing ticking along nicely like you’re catching up with old friends yourself, which in a way you probably are.

But, once again, it’s that earnest appreciation for each other that keeps it all together. Even the “proper” British actors that Radcliffe watched and learned from throughout his tenure as the Boy Who Lived couldn’t have faked that. As cynical as some of the production choices might be when it comes to evoking old feelings, there’s a real heart here, even after all those years.

You can stream Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts exclusively on HBO Max.

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