HBO Max has developed a fondness for reunions after that awkward “Friends” gathering and “The West Wing” voting special. Yet “Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts” strikes just the right balance, looking back at the cinematic franchise with warmth and humor, while delicately capturing the impact on kids raised on a movie set over a formative decade.
Perhaps foremost, this 100-odd-minute documentary – shrewdly divided into four chapters, each encompassing two movies – makes terrific use of clips and outtakes to illustrate its anecdotes and remembrances. When Emma Watson and Rupert Grint discuss the uncomfortable buildup to Hermione and Ron’s first kiss, it’s presented not just with the actual scene but footage of them fidgeting and laughing while trying to shoot it, as well as director David Yates discussing his efforts to guide them.
Tears flow before it’s over, but the unavoidable sentimentality of it all feels mostly earned, especially when acknowledging those featured in the films who have died, among them Richard Harris, Alan Rickman and most recently Helen McCrory.
As for another big name, J.K. Rowling, the producers have managed to incorporate the author – who has stirred controversy with her commentary about gender identity and trans rights – with material culled from a 2019 interview. It’s a bit of magic all its own, really, acknowledging Rowling’s contribution without fully inviting her to the party. (Daniel Radcliffe was among those who publicly responded to Rowling’s statements.)
Not surprisingly, the special begins by recalling the enormous popularity of the books and the search for the kids, with Radcliffe describing himself as a happy child “with a really haunted quality,” precisely what director Chris Columbus was seeking in the title role.
In hindsight, the remarkable aspect of the “Harry Potter” franchise emanated from the audacity of casting young actors who would provide its foundation across eight movies, then surrounding them with what’s accurately described as “British royalty of the acting world,” several of whom take part, including Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Isaacs, and Gary Oldman. (Seeing Fiennes’ performance before his nose is digitally removed offers one of the more fascinating behind-the-scenes treats.)
Tom Felton, who portrayed Draco Malfoy, amusingly confesses to first seeing all these acclaimed actors and “not having a clue who anyone is.” In other cases, the kids admit to being starstruck, whereas their elders and the directors discuss the strategies they employed dealing with a set filled with children, including the onset of “teenage hormones” and related crushes in the middle of the series.
While not entirely intentional, executive producer Casey Patterson and company have simultaneously created a document not just to the making of the movies, but the broader issues faced by children working as actors. Watson, for example, acknowledges having thought about quitting about halfway through, saying, “The fame thing, it finally hit home in a big way.”
In other words, even with all the precautions taken to foster a nurturing environment for the children – something the central trio, their peers and filmmakers address at some length – they couldn’t be entirely shielded from the effects of such daunting attention at an early age, caught up as they were in the center of a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
In its most emotional moments, the younger actors express the nature of the bond forged among them in this artificial world. While one suspects there’s a bit of performing in staging the on-camera reunions, those moments feel genuine enough regarding how they supported each other through this extraordinary time. (As a footnote, the special also offers a reminder of the brilliance of John Williams’ musical score.)
Overall, “Return to Hogwarts” is perhaps more magic-filled than consistently magical. But when the special gets it right, streaming’s latest trip down memory lane not only provides inspiration to go re-watch these movies, but it does cast a certain kind of spell unlike most Hollywood-orchestrated reunions by conjuring a touching sense of the shared experience that these boys and girls lived.
“Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts” premieres Jan. 1 on HBO Max. Like CNN, Warner Bros. and HBO Max are units of WarnerMedia.