Returning to Hogwarts: Reviewing the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary Special

January 7, 2022

Written by: Jim Smith

In the hearts of millions worldwide, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter holds a special place. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – the first film in the series based on author J.K. Rowling’s legendary books – debuted in the U.S. in November 2001. As we approached the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the film franchise, the preceding months brought an intense resurgence in Harry Potter fandom. This is thanks in large part to the development and promotion of two major television specials celebrating the iconic film franchise.

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of Houses

Image: WarnerMedia

The first special was a four-week event-style quiz show Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of Houses. The show – hosted by British acting legend Helen Mirren – aired on consecutive Sundays from November 28 through December 19, 2021 on WarnerMedia channels (and later on HBO Max). The quiz show offered a variety of questions, ranging from simple spells geared toward the more casual fans to complicated incantations sure to challenge the most avid Potterheads. The structure and choreography of the series felt a bit goofy at times, but overall it offered a fun experience for Potter fans to test themselves in sorcerer trivia.

Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts

The second, even more highly anticipated (and heavily promoted) special was the Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts reunion special, which released on New Year’s day on HBO Max. This special promised to be the icing on the cake of our recent resurgence of Pottermania, offering glimpses of returning cast members, heartfelt embraces, and inviting set pieces.

Image: WarnerMedia

The cynical side of me acknowledged that Return to Hogwarts was partially a carrot to get folks like me to sign up for HBO Max – a conclusion I came to after viewing incessant commercials on TBS during the four-week Hogwarts Tournament of Houses series. In that strategy, it’s not much different than the premier of a new film or series on any other streaming service (Stranger Things on Netflix or [insert Marvel television series here] on Disney+). With this acknowledgement in place (and looking for another reason to justify subscribing to HBO Max, so I can also watch the last two seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm) I bit the bullet and hit “subscribe.”

I Solemnly Swear…I Will Not Cry

Return to Hogwarts was pretty much what I expected – joyful embracing, tearful reminiscing, complimentary feelings toward all who contributed, amazing setss, and even a memoriam of those no longer with us. I knew what to expect. I had my defenses ready. And I teared up anyway.

Watching Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) walking on Platform 9¾, and seeing Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) stroll through Diagon Alley, was a little hokey.  But a deeper look into the moment, beyond the theatrics involved, provides quite a bit of emotion. These are places where the actors – not just the characters – literally grew up. The franchise’s three primary stars, and quite a bit of the supporting cast, spent much of ten years of their childhood lives on these sets, with each other, acting, learning, and growing. These kids braved swarms of other children vying for a coveted role as a student at Hogwarts. Then they spent the remainder of their childhoods on set. The relationships they forged with each other, as well as the “grown-ups” in the cast and crew, were lifelong bonds – stronger than the Unbreakable Vow.

Image: WarnerMedia

As fantastic as the reveals were of the child actors, the return of several adult actors felt equally emotional.  Seeing Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), and Gary Oldman (Sirius Black) looking back on their parts in the story was like magic. The anecdotes provided by Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley) and Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy) were surprisingly entertaining trivia nuggets.

But the actors weren’t the only ones taking center stage in this production. Franchise film producer David Heyman, along with all four different film directors (including Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, and David Yates) offered their insights into the films they directed. Each director brought their own style and ideas to the series, which helped the emotion evolve as the characters (particularly the children) grew.

One final emotional gut-punch offered in the special was a touching tribute to the actors who have passed through the final curtain. Legends like Richard Harris (the original Dumbledore), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), and many others were lost to us since the films concluded, and the producers took a moment to remember their contributions.

Commentary from author J.K. Rowling was sparse within the program – limited to a few thoughts lifted from a 2019 interview. It’s unfortunate that Rowling – the creator of this entire magical universe – wasn’t able to have a larger part in celebrating its adaptation into film. But the fingerprints of this creative genius are all over the film franchise, and many of the actors and directors offered acknowledgment of her contributions during the production of the films.

As for the organization of the special, the initial kickoff was a bit awkward. The emotional meetings sometimes came across as feeling staged, and the conversations between the guests occasionally took on the form of interviews, with some of the questions feeling more choreographed than naturally occurring. Highly edited combinations of guests were presented at different times throughout the reunion, causing me to doubt that there ever was a true reunion moment of all the guests who appeared in the special.

But even with the staged presentation of some of the interactions, the feelings and sentiments of the guests felt real. I could feel their emotion, which in turn took a stab at my emotions. 

Image: WarnerMedia

To be a part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – whether that be as a single-film character or one of the mainstays throughout the series – was acknowledged as an honor and a privilege by all who participated in the reunion. The appreciation in their voices was palpable. Hearing the guests discuss how much participation in the film series meant to them was gold.

A True Hogwarts Feast

Return to Hogwarts clocked in at a healthy one hour and 42 minutes, putting it somewhere between a brisk clip show and a marathon. The sheer length of the special may have lost a few fairweather fans along the way.  The organization of the presentation traveled along a chronological timeline. Many content breakpoints were installed, which fell naturally between film discussions, helping those who weren’t ready to dedicate the better part of two hours to the program to pause and save some for later. 

Final House Points

Image: WarnerMedia

Return to Hogwarts collected ten years of our favorite boy wizard – and his entire magical world – and distilled it into a loving look back at this filmmaking work of art. The persistent love and admiration felt by the cast and crew served to inspire further appreciation of the series – both in what it represents and what it took to produce the story. Harry Potter will persist for generations to come, thanks to this film series and the books that inspired it. I can only speak for myself (but I suspect I speak for many) when I say “thank you.”

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