Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts premieres January 1 on HBO Max.
Harry Potter fans are in for a holiday season treat as a hefty franchise reunion special lands on our laps this New Years’ Day (which is enough wiggle room to still feel Christmas-y). Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is a warm blanket — er, Invisibility Cloak — of nostalgia that mixes cozy cast reunions and fond friendship memories with a film-by-film approach to the eight-movie saga. In its attempt to be everything, though, it may run a bit long for some casuals’ tastes, occasionally feeling more like supplemental Blu-ray material, but the time and care devoted to sentimentality and heartfelt reminiscence is always wonderfully on display.
“It doesn’t feel like we’ve earned a reunion,” Harry Potter star Rupert Grint smirks, while he and co-stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson sit and reminisce in the Gryffindor Common Room. And while Grint makes a good point, since the final Harry Potter film was only ten years ago, there’s also something to be said for not waiting too long for an official look back. So long that one finds themselves striking while the iron is lukewarm at best. Recent years have shown us that legacy material — whether it’s reboots, sequels, or reunions — can be hit or miss when it comes to finding an audience, even if what’s produced is something truly excellent.
Potter fanatics probably won’t find anything new to chew on within this almost two-hour special, but if you’re that big a fan it won’t matter. You can hear all about the kids’ audition processes (including how Potter fan Evanna Lynch nabbed the role of Luna Lovegood) or about the various on-set crushes over the years (Watson pining for Tom Felton, Radcliffe wishing he were older in the case of Helena Bonham Carter, etc) all day until the Hippogriffs come home and it’d still be a joy.
No, not everyone is back for this juggernaut of a time capsule, but the key players are here. The triumphant trio, plus the saga’s most important mid-carders. Some were clearly more available than others (Watson appears in the storybook style opening credits and several breakout chats while Grint was only on hand for the Harry/Ron/Hermione fireside chat) but enough shuffling of the deck is done so that everything flows nicely. Again, this is a feature-length endeavor that also brings out the four directors — Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, and David Yates — for lengthy dives into their movies, so definite attention was paid to the pacing of the project. It never gets hung up on anything for too long but it also sits with things enough to impact you emotionally.
Presentation matters and what’s front and center here is a very hearth-centric gather-round. Having (most) everyone back at Hogwarts, which as a cold-weather castle is designed to feel gothically soothing and comforting, makes this all feel like a festive family reunion. A family filled with love, but also one with members who don’t regularly see each other. Or even check in. Which makes it feel even more like a real family in certain ways, to be honest.
Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint have an immense sibling-style love and affection for each other but were so deeply immersed in each others’ lives during a decade of formative years that they’ve also had their fill of each other, in a way. If that makes sense. They will always be special to one another but they also, all three of them, represent each others’ past, very starkly and assuredly. We live in a world where fans dream of co-stars being best friends who are inseparable for the rest of their lives but that’s rarely the case so one of the reasons these types of reunion hangs are so popular is because, well, they wrangle and herd everyone back into close proximity.
The 25 Best Harry Potter Characters
As Return to Hogwarts approaches the end, we stumble into one of the best recollections of the bunch which is the awkwardness surrounding Ron and Hermione’s kiss in Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Of course, as characters, on page and on screen, they’re fated to be together and many things over the years had been building to this moment, but for Grint and Watson it was immeasurably tricky. Unlike, say, the Friends cast, where Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer were an on-screen couple who did fancy each other (and were also just part of an HBO Max reunion where dating rumors started swirling once again), this was definitely not the case here. And the saga is sweeter for it. Their love for each other runs deep, but it’s platonic and pointedly unique.
Return to Hogwarts is at its best when it encapsulates the specialness of this decade-long project, and how nothing’s ever been done quite like it with regards to having its young stars grow up on screen, with no recasting of the kids, for the entirety of the story. The trio have a good laugh about how they were all so young when they started that they had nary a clue about the parade of British acting royalty they were doing many of their scenes with. Then, as they moved into Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire they started becoming more aware, and nervous, about the pedigree of performers — like Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Ralph Fiennes — entering the mix.
Addressing the J.K. Rowling in the room, the author/creator, who can’t seem to not constantly tweet out her gross and harmful anti-trans positions (to the point where the principal cast of Potter had to put out statements reaffirming their transgender allyship), is relegated to a few mentions and snippets from an interview done in 2019. It can be distracting but not enough to sidetrack the special, especially given the length of the thing.
Hearty laughs over past jokes and japes, tears wiped away in remembrance of friends and mentors lost along the way, and a filmic exploration of the the characters’ journeys from beginning to end, Return to Hogwarts covers all bases and makes for a pleasant and gratifying tuck in for the phenomenal franchise.