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Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts would very much like to remind you that you loved the Harry Potter movies once and hopefully still do, or at least have enough lingering affection for them that you could be prodded into falling in love with them all over again. But as I watched, the experiences it called to mind were not so much of the films themselves as of the bonus features that came with the DVDs I still have sitting on my shelf. As with those, the experience isn’t an unpleasant one — but it falls somewhere far short of magical.
The 100-minute HBO Max documentary works hard to recapture some of the films’ whimsy and wonder. The opening minutes find various Harry Potter stars gasping with theatrical delight as they stumble upon invitations to the reunion, styled after the one that first brought Harry into this universe. A shot of Daniel Radcliffe walking down Diagon Alley en route to meet director Chris Columbus feels, for a moment, like a glimpse of Harry all grown up. Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have a heart-to-heart by the Gryffindor fireplace, while Matthew Lewis, Tom Felton and Alfred Enoch reminisce over gilded champagne flutes at Gringotts. There’s something to be said for how sweet it is simply to see these people and places all together again.
Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts
Airdate: Saturday, Jan. 1
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton, Bonnie Wright, Matthew Lewis, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Gary Oldman
But all this exquisite set design and logistical wrangling turns out to be in service of only fitfully compelling material. Return to Hogwarts takes a roughly chronological walk down memory lane, augmenting present-day interviews with the filmmakers and performers about each film with behind-the-scenes footage and film clips. Many of the anecdotes presented will be ones that Harry Potter fans will have heard many times before, like the one about Grint making a very Ron choice to shirk a homework assignment from Alfonso Cuarón. There’s feather-light analysis of the themes of each film, and brief segments touching upon actors who’ve passed or how “great” the fans are.
And then there’s the praise. Huge swaths of Return to Hogwarts are devoted to people reiterating how significant the series was, or gushing over each other’s talents, or declaring their love for other members of a team they claim was just like family. (Mostly platonic love, though there is a cute story about Watson’s childhood crush on Felton.) In the absence of deeper analysis or fresher reveals, these effusive compliments, sincere and deserved though they may be, take on the hollow sheen of PR-approved junket soundbites.
Flashes of real delight do spring up here and there, many of them involving Helena Bonham Carter — a cheerfully chaotic force who teases Felton about wands not being real and makes Radcliffe blush with a friendly, flirtatious note he wrote her years ago (“I just wish I’d been born 10 years earlier, I might have been in with a chance”). Too often, though, what comes across onscreen feels less like good times between good friends than the elaborate performance of them.
When what’s onscreen started to feel so relentlessly nice that it bordered on bland, I found my thoughts turning instead to what was left out of the special. Some omissions provoke idle curiosity: Is it a pointed dig or a simple oversight that Michael Gambon goes almost unmentioned while the late Richard Harris, whose role Gambon inherited, is remembered fondly by his costars? But others speak to how assiduously the film avoids anything remotely dark or difficult. Even when Watson confirms she once considered leaving the franchise, recalling how “lonely” she felt, only the vaguest of explanations are offered for what went wrong, or why she decided to stay.
And the special definitely has no interest in addressing the damage that’s been done to the property’s reputation by its creator’s very public embrace of transphobia. J.K. Rowling is not entirely absent from Return to Hogwarts. She’s mentioned a few times by other subjects, and seen briefly in snippets from old interviews. (Reportedly, she declined to participate in the new project.) But it’s striking how gingerly her involvement in all things Harry Potter is treated — particularly given that, as a screenwriter on the upcoming Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, she still has an active hand in the movies.
Downplaying the Rowling of it all is probably the shrewder choice from a business perspective. Return to Hogwarts has nothing to gain from the kind of controversy she sparks nowadays, and she’s surely making money off this either way. But in avoiding talk of Rowling, Return to Hogwarts also largely avoids talk of the books, which leaves an incomplete picture of Harry Potter‘s history and significance over the past two decades.
Then again, Return to Hogwarts was never built for that kind of weightiness, or really for any kind of weightiness. If it’s thoughtful critique you want, you’re better off with any of the books, podcasts and essays published about Harry Potter since its inception; if it’s gossipy tidbits you’re after, news headlines have already done that work for you.
What Return to Hogwarts is designed for is fitfully endearing self-congratulation. In a marketing sense, it’s more or less successful: Even from the midst of my indifference to the special itself, I briefly wondered if it might be worth binge-watching the movies for the first time in a decade, because these quotes make them sound so good.
But it can’t help but feel like a letdown that a film series built on epic ambitions, soaring emotions, profound life lessons and a whole Gringotts vault’s worth of production budgets can think of nothing more interesting to do 20 years later than offer up this sentimental but superficial glimpse back into the past.
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