5 takeaways from Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return To Hogwarts

5 takeaways from Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return To Hogwarts

A decade of bonding, an unwanted visitor, and more

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Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, and Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return To Hogwarts
Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, and Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return To Hogwarts
Photo: Nick Wall/HBO Max

It’s been over 20 years since Warner Bros. Pictures released Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone, the first film based on the bestselling young adult fantasy novels revolving around the titular “boy who lived” and his classmates at Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry. Though the Potterhead fandom is no longer what it was when the final film, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, arrived in 2011, the Hogwarts Express was the next sensible stop for HBO Max’s current run of hit reunion specials. Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return To Hogwarts is a reunion special billed as a “making-of” story. However, the reunion’s selling point is the cast, and the first time the erstwhile Harry, Hermione, and Ron—Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, respectively—have shared the screen in 10 years.

Unlike HBO Max’s other “let’s gather everyone together” exercises, the Harry Potter reunion (which runs a feature-length hour and 43 minutes) leans into its cinematic roots. After a magical opening leading to Warner Bros. Studios London’s recreated Harry Potter sets, viewers are treated to artfully staged mini-meetups in the various museum exhibits. The cast members reminisce about old times, and talking head interviews run through significant moments of all eight films.

Little here is new for the hardcore Potterhead. The difference is that it’s the cast addressing the experience for the first time. Read on for five key takeaways from the special.

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The crushes of yesteryear

The crushes of yesteryear

Daniel Radcliffe and Helena Bonham Carter in the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts
Daniel Radcliffe and Helena Bonham Carter in the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts
Photo: Nick Wall/HBO Max

1. The crushes of yesteryear

The most significant new information divulged in the special involves cast crushes. Watson reveals she had a massive crush on the actor who played her character’s primary antagonist, Draco Malfoy, feelings that developed after she saw Tom Felton draw a girl with a backward baseball cap on a skateboard as his vision of God. Not that anything happened between them (Watson’s direct quote: “Nothing ever, ever, ever, ever, ever happened,”) as Felton was almost four years older than her, which, in teen years, is practically a lifetime. But their declaration of how deep the bond still runs is a highlight.

Another utterly adorable moment has Helena Bonham Carter bring the note Radcliffe wrote her at the end of the final film. She has him read aloud, on camera, how he, at 18, wished he was a decade older so he could have been “in like a shot” with her. Aww.

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A decade together

A decade together

Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, and Rupert Grint circa Harry Potter And The Sorceror’s Stone
Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, and Rupert Grint circa Harry Potter And The Sorceror’s Stone
Photo: HBO Max

2. A decade together

Like any reunion, Return To Hogwarts is an exercise in emotional catharsis. Though some of the biggest stars rounded up are still the adults from the films—like Jason Isaacs or Gary Oldman—the focus remains on the actors who grew up on set together. Watson, Radcliffe, and Grint feel like long-lost siblings returning home after a decade away. They’re not the only ones either. Bonnie Wright notes she had two on-set families: the cast members who played Ginny Weasley’s Hogwarts classmates and those who played Wright’s fictional family, with Julie Walters serving as both a mother figure and a mentor in the business. There are tears of gratitude for the fandom who make Potter mean so much. However, the actors shed just as many over Hogwarts, on some level, always being their home.

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The sheer amount of success stories

The sheer amount of success stories

Emma Watson, Matthew Lewis, Tom Felton, James Phelps, and Bonnie Wright in the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return To Hogwarts
Emma Watson, Matthew Lewis, Tom Felton, James Phelps, and Bonnie Wright in the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return To Hogwarts
Photo: Nick Wall/HBO Max

3. The sheer amount of success stories

One of the biggest takeaways from Return To Hogwarts is that the Harry Potter films were an unwitting experiment in raising child actors. Listen to Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint wax poetic about getting front row seats to filming scenes like The Shrieking Shack in Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, and it becomes clear: Take a dozen pre-teens with camera-ready spark, have them work intimately with the U.K.’s biggest A-listers for a decade, and see what results.

Harry Potter is a success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams when viewed through that lens. Radcliffe has created a body of work on Broadway and in indie films, Watson starred in Disney’s live action remake of Beauty And The Beast and Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women, and Grint has taken to doing oddball streaming series. But they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Matthew Lewis, who credits his character Neville’s story with helping him find his way after the films, is currently on PBS’ All Creatures Great And Small. Harry Melling and Robert Pattinson (who don’t appear here) are busy with major big-screen projects: Melling’s in The Tragedy Of Macbeth, and Pattinson’s The Batman arrives in March. Felton was recently in Netflix’s surprise hit A Babysitter’s Guide To Monster Hunting; Alfred Enoch spent six seasons in Shondaland’s How To Get Away With Murder before moving to Apple TV+’s Foundation. Domhnall Gleeson was in Star Wars, Katie Leung was in PBS’ Roadkill, Freddie Stroma is about to debut in Peacemaker. However you feel about this franchise and what’s happened over the last decade since it ended, that’s its true legacy.

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She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is in it 

She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is in it 

From left: Evanna Lynch, Emma Watson, and Bonnie Wright. Not pictured: J.K. Rowling
From left: Evanna Lynch, Emma Watson, and Bonnie Wright. Not pictured: J.K. Rowling
Photo: Nick Wall

4. She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is in it 

Yeah.

HBO Max marketing studiously avoided mentioning Potter author J.K. Rowling as part of the special’s guest list. Many assumed she hadn’t been invited (and at least one author on Twitter took umbrage on her behalf). But the production didn’t have the nerve to cut her out completely. So instead, it tried to split the baby. Rowling appears in clips repurposed from the Warner Bros. Studios London tour, along with a chyron stating these are archival interviews, as one might in a documentary when using extant footage of a deceased person.

It’s an odd choice that seems to have been made because someone, somewhere felt they had to include her but didn’t want to offend anyone. Return To Hogwarts uses interview clips from 2019 because (one supposes) there’s plausible deniability at that point of knowing Rowling’s bigoted, transphobic views. But the most remarkable part is none of the clips add to the discussion. Her statements merely agree with what the people interviewed for the special are already saying. So there’s no argument that they are somehow necessary or unavoidable. All they do is guarantee no one will be satisfied, as those who refuse to support her will tune out upon learning she appears, while those who will complain on her behalf will call this bowing to cancel culture.

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Changing The Narrative

Changing The Narrative

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Photo: Nick Wall

5. Changing The Narrative

Which leads to the most significant takeaway: How hard this special is working to change the narrative around the Potter fandom.

There’s no overemphasizing how gorgeous the special is. It’s not a bunch of people chatting around a fountain or an old living room set. It is worthy of a big-screen premiere. It tugs at every heart string. It will move even the most jaded fan bitter over how the story has failed to age well. The editing is superb; the John Williams score flawlessly deployed. It is an exercise in nostalgia-washing. Forget Fantastic Beasts And Whatever They’re Doing With Dumbledore. Forget She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. This works.

Will it work well enough? As political articles love to remind us, Twitter is not real life. Much of what has hampered the Potter fandom online is not part of the general public awareness. Sales of the novels remain high; the Helen Mirren-hosted Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament Of Houses was a cable-ratings smash. This 20th-anniversary special feels like a test balloon to see how hot the property is with audiences ahead of announcing a streaming series. If it doesn’t succeed, it won’t be because the franchise didn’t put its best foot forward. But though this may be a retrospective, it seems more like a softening of the ground to begin anew and take Potter into decades to come.

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