Thursday, August 18, 2022

‘Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts’ Review: A Magical & Nostalgic Tribute

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Grab your books, wand, and robes, because it’s time to take a trip back to the Wizarding World. Today marks the premiere of Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts, an HBO Max Original retrospective reunion special that looks back on all eight Harry Potter films and the talented cast and crew behind them.

As a 90s kid myself, I grew up during the pinnacle of Potter mania, devouring the books and feeling subsequently enamored as they all came to life on the big screen. The Wizarding World always has and always will be a magical escape for me, extending far beyond the pages and the credits, which is why I immediately burst into tears during the opening of Return to Hogwarts. It builds up with a soft thrum of excitement as the cast receives their Hogwarts letters, moving on to the anticipation of the Hogwarts Express, and hitting a peak as Emma Watson strolls into the Great Hall and old friends greet one another with a comfortable warmth and happiness. This wonderful opening really helps to convey the gravity of the special. However, while constraints like logistics and the runtime may have contributed to this, I do wish that we could have seen the main trio interact with more of the cast members, because it was endearing but far too brief to see them all together in the introduction.

That being said, Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is undoubtedly a remarkably sentimental journey through a decade of films that’s guaranteed to make longtime fans reach for the tissues. Given all the other various ways in which the universe of Harry Potter has expanded over the years, seeing an official reunion between Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson was a wonderful surprise. It was lovely to see them as adults wistfully and humorously looking back on their experiences as Harry, Ron, and Hermione and the reverent way that the Wizarding World still holds a place in all of their hearts.

Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, and Rupert Grint
HBO Max
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There was a special sort of honest intimacy and vulnerability in the conversations shown between the cast and crew throughout, which allows viewers to understand that while Harry Potter may have changed our lives, it also changed theirs as well. And with the conversations also came plenty of fascinating tidbits about the films, like Alan Rickman’s insider knowledge on Snape, Radcliffe’s casting, the real story behind filming Ron and Hermione’s kissing scene, and a debacle with the candles in the Great Hall.

In this current age of filmmaking, we as viewers have now recently grown used to experiencing a constant flow of information about television and movies by way of social media. There’s so much unfiltered access to things like cast and crew commentary and behind-the-scenes snapshots, which is something that you used to have to watch the extras on a DVD or buy a book for. This phenomenon had yet to reach the level that it has now during much of the days of the Harry Potter films, which meant that we didn’t quite experience that aspect of them in the way that we do with other productions today. So for me, pulling back the curtain and revisiting so many familiar faces and places in Return to Hogwarts truly felt just as magical as the world that it was set in.

To address the unwanted elephant in the room, yes, J.K. Rowling does appear in the special by way of solo archival footage from 2019 and several mentions of her name throughout. Her randomly-inserted commentary was entirely unnecessary, and it felt as if her inconsequential remarks on the film series were haphazardly tossed in as a way to include her. Rowling’s continuously problematic, harmful transphobic rhetoric has driven a deep wedge into the franchise in recent years, and seeing her included in what was an otherwise touching retrospective special was deeply uncomfortable. In case you missed it, make sure to read our deep dive into how fans have found ways to celebrate these characters and stories that mean so much to them without Rowling — 20 Years of Harry Potter: How The Fandom Is Reclaiming Potter For Themselves.

While the producers were able to bring together an impressive amount of members of the cast and crew, there were several key faces that were sadly missing from the endeavor. I would have liked to have seen Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon reflect on their time as two of Hogwarts’ most legendary figures, for Julie Walters to have been there for the Weasley reunion, and for David Thewlis to have joined in for the chat between Radcliffe and Gary Oldman. There were also some important figures that have passed away in the time since the movies finished, which the documentary acknowledged with an emotional tribute. And of course, it was only fitting for the special to close out with Alan Rickman’s most iconic line.

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Overal, Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts was a magically nostalgic documentary that faithfully paid tribute to the talented actors and filmmakers that cast the spell of a lifetime in bringing the Wizarding World to life.

Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is now streaming exclusively on HBO Max.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m still waiting for my Hogwarts letter.

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