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‘Return to Hogwarts’ Review: 20 Years Offers Little More Than Basic Insight into ‘Harry Potter’ Landscape

The "Harry Potter 20th Anniversary Reunion Special" is essentially a long bonus feature you'd probably find on a DVD or Blu-ray box set.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1, from left: Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, 2010. ©2010 Warner Bros. Ent. Harry Potter publishing rights ©J.K.R. Harry Potter characters, names and related indicia are trademarks of and ©Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved./Courtesy Everett Collection

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1”

Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Like many people of my generation, I can recall the first time I read “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and the first time I saw one of the movies in theaters. Never a die-hard fan, the movies and books were nevertheless a part of my childhood. But the entirety of the Harry Potter universe has changed for me, as it has for many, in the wake of series creator J.K. Rowling’s anti-trans comments, and time has caused us to question many of the decisions made in the films and novels.

Did I expect any of this to be touched on during HBO Max’s nearly two-hour reunion special? No. Warner Bros. has been fairly transparent that they still plan to work with Rowling, regardless of what she says. But I did hope that maybe, 20 years after the release of the first feature film, there might be a desire to look at something, anything. And, sure, there are moments that touch on darkness presented in this hour and 45 minutes, but they’re few and fleeting.

The tone is set from the first minute, when a select few cast members are “discovered” just hanging around random places that aren’t at all a set. Emma Watson is casually perusing a second-hand book shop, Matthew Lewis is talking to a cab driver. Various invitations to come to this reunion are magically presented and we’re off to totally not planned moments where the cast is reunited for big hugs and bright smiles.

This is one of the main incongruities that’s immediately apparent about the special: scripted moments passed off as pure authenticity. There are no criticisms that can be lobbed at this series, because everything has been stage-managed to prohibit that. The “Friends” reunion had the core six back together again. Here, whether because of COVID or just individual schedules, we get more of a piecemeal reunion where actors are made to seem like they’re together more often than they are.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson are together the most, but more often we get Radcliffe, Grint, or Watson quasi-interviewing other important members of the franchise, like director Chris Columbus. Other performers, like Lewis, Tom Felton, and Bonnie Wright are just individual talking heads, which only enhances the feeling that these are leftover interviews saved up for a moment like this. And those present feel selective. Michael Gambon, who played Dumbledore for six of the eight films, isn’t even included in stock interviews for reasons that feel weird. Towards the end, Emma Watson refers to Katie Leung, who played Harry Potter’s paramour Cho Chang, as a remarkable activist, yet Leung is only present in footage from the films, and there’s absolutely no discussion of the racism she experienced while making the films.

HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, 2001

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”

Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s been 20 years and the lack of any desire to introspectively look at the good and, yes, the bad the series has created feels like a lazy way to cash in on nostalgia. Take the reference to Leung, for example. In one of the more genuine moments, Emma Watson discusses how she almost left the series after the third feature. Why she wanted to leave is never explained — though most people who remember that time know Watson was one of several pre-teen girls to experience a “countdown to 18.” Add to that Radcliffe and Grint saying they knew there was a distinction in how they were treated versus Watson — though what that distinction was, again, is unclear — and there could easily have been a discussion about growing up as a woman, as a minority, and making a beloved series like this.

The goal of the special is to invoke warm fuzzies, and those creating it understand that the ones watching will be superfans who eat up everything Harry Potter. So it doesn’t matter that Rowling is slapped into the special in some badly Photoshopped moments that could easily be lifted out depending on how people react online. It doesn’t matter that those same fans who harassed Leung are the ones so often cited by the assembled cast as being vital to the series, considered some of the “kindest” people out there. There’s such a desire to focus on the rose-colored glasses elements that not even Robert Pattinson’s first feature film role being in “The Goblet of Fire” is discussed. Instead, we get copious clips of the producer giving us a film school analysis of what subtext in certain scenes is meant to convey or how adolescence is shaped through these movies.

The “Harry Potter 20th Anniversary Reunion Special” is essentially a long bonus feature you’d probably find on a DVD or Blu-ray box set. I wasn’t convinced a time or two that old interviews weren’t just reused. If you’re a “Harry Potter” superfan, you’ll probably find returning to Hogwarts and seeing your favorite characters reunited pleasant enough. Just don’t expect anything passing for growth.

Grade: D

Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts” streams on HBO Max January 1.

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