Spoiler warning: this article discusses scenes from Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts.
The highly anticipated Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts special was released on January 1. Many cast members of the Harry Potter franchise joined to celebrate 20 years since the first film adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s generation-defining series about The Boy Who Lived.
The generation that grew up with Harry Potter books (and to an arguably lesser extent, the movies) expect an emotional rollercoaster, and the reunion special certainly delivers. The opening 10 minutes alone make you want to rewatch the entire series again (which would take around 20 hours). Throughout the reunion special’s 100-minute runtime the cast members meet in old sets that are perfectly preserved, from the dense steam and piercing whistles of the Hogwarts Express to the heavy-laden shelves in Dumbledore’s inviting office.
The HBO Max special, which follows a loose chronological discussion of the film’s thematic elements, begins with the soaring John Williams score (now embellished with seasonal bells) as Emma Watson (who played Hermione Granger) walks down platform 9 ¾, having received a letter addressed to a second-hand bookshop in London with the same whimsical specificity as in the books. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) walks down a quiet Diagon Alley to meet Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets Director Chris Columbus.
A particularly touching moment juxtaposes a behind-the-scenes look of the young trio with the now-adult actors seated in the Gryffindor common room. Much of the initial interviews are spent talking about how similar the three young actors were to their literary counterparts.
“Rupert was Ron, and Dan kind of was Harry,” Watson says at one point. It is an analogy that fans have no doubt heard before, but it serves the purpose of establishing a link between the characters in the books and the actors. Likewise, the familial relationships between the cast members are emphasized throughout the special—to almost emetic levels. During the discussion of the Philosopher’s Stone, the trio talks about what it was like being children on a set, how Director Columbus was like a father to them, and how they spent most of the time distracted and playing Slaps. Uncovered secrets that made headlines in the following weeks include Watson’s childhood crush on Tom Felton and Radcliffe’s letter to Helena Bonham Carter (who is a delightfully chaotic addition to the special).
With this reunion, viewers revisit the same sense of wonderment they experienced as children—running to get their copies of the newest book or watching the latest film in theatres. Was it a tad contrived? Certainly. It was arguably overly sentimental, but it struck a chord in the hearts of ardent fans. A less sentimental viewer might accuse the elaborate performance of deftly avoiding darker themes, especially since the cast repeatedly emphasizes feelings of magic and warmth throughout the entire film experience.
The special skirts around any deeper discussion of the recent besmirchment of the Harry Potter franchise. Amid the nostalgia, there was a tense undercurrent due to Rowling’s unaddressed absence, who only appears in archival footage from 2019. Much of the fanbase has distanced itself from the author following several comments made on Twitter that were criticized for being anti-trans. The disinclination to include Rowling in the special means the program leans more toward the movies rather than the books, missing the chance to explore the franchise’s cultural impact.
There were several other notable unaddressed absences, such as Michael Gambon (who played Dumbledore for most of the films) and Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall) among a few others. The cast members also pay tribute to actors who have since passed, such as Richard Harris, the first Dumbledore; Richard Griffiths, who played Mr. Dursley; and John Hurt, who played Ollivander from the wand shop in Diagon Alley. Notably, cast members remember the impact of Alan Rickman and Helen McCrory‘s performances as Severus Snape and Narcissa Malfoy respectively.
The reunion special serves the simple purpose of celebrating the anniversary of a franchise that means a lot to many people, and admittedly, it is nice to see the cast meet as adults, see the wizarding world from a more mature perspective, and reminisce about times that have passed. Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts acts as a potent dose of nostalgia with enough heart to awaken the sentimentality that lies latent in all of us.