TV review: Harry Potter 20th Anniversary Special: Return to Hogwarts
5 / 5 ( 1 vote )
Trips down memory lane
This entertaining, insightful reunion special is more than a mere nostalgia trip.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today without so many people here.” That’s Daniel Radcliffe as he looks back on the Harry Potter franchise in Return to Hogwarts, a special to mark the 20th anniversary of the first film. Reunions are a valuable prize in an era where nostalgia is currency, but while it’s only a matter of minutes until someone utters the “F” word (family), this retrospective documentary steers clear of unnecessary sentiment and earns its emotional moments.
The 90-minute celebration takes us back through the films in pretty straightforward sequence, starting with Philosopher’s Stone and the challenge in casting the young stars in the first place. There’s screen test footage that shows us how Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) clicked almost immediately, but what’s really remarkable about the franchise is the way that all three performers turned out to be genuinely talented adult actors as well. That’s partly down to the casting director and Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two films and made the rest of the franchise’s screen evolution possible, but what this special conveys is the environment that was created around these inexperienced kids, encouraging, guiding and nurturing their acting skills – without any of them turning into wayward adults, suffering trauma or quitting showbiz altogether.
Watson, though, admits that she came close to walking away halfway through the series, as she found it lonely as they grew up in the public spotlight. The trio’s conversation about their experiences as young stars, and realising in hindsight that they weren’t self-aware enough at the time to ask each other how they were doing, is surprisingly candid, and gives us a sense of what they went through – and we’re reminded just how rare that is, as they spent a decade growing up with their characters on screen, a feat that hasn’t been repeated by any other live-action franchise in recent memory.
With that coming of age came hormones and other concerns, and we get fresh gossip on Emma Watson’s crush on Tom Felton, Radcliffe’s crush on Helena Bonham Carter – which she amusingly relives by getting him to read out a message he sent her – and the various hook-ups and break-ups that occurred in the background, like normal pupils in a muggle school.
The youthful excitement of being surrounded by such thesps as Gary Oldman, Jason Isaacs, Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman never wore off, and the veterans aren’t shy about joining in the reminiscing – Oldman and Radcliffe, in particular, are a joy to see chatting, as Daniel still enthuses about learning “proper acting” from his on-screen father figure. Ralph Fiennes, meanwhile, gamely talks about how his children persuaded him to take on the role of Voldemort, Jason Isaacs laughs at how he initially auditioned to play Gilderoy Lockhart, and national treasure Toby Jones, who voices Dobby, celebrates the franchise’s message in welcoming outsiders and valuing them for who they are.
That moral legacy is slightly jarring in 2021, a time when many people involved in the franchise have distanced themselves from original author JK Rowling, due to disappointing comments made by her in recent years about the transgender community. She does appear here, but briefly in interview segments that were pre-recorded in 2019 for other purposes. Curiously also absent is screenwriter Steve Kloves, who was central to distilling the books for the screen – although before you can dwell on his underrated input into the franchise, you’re distracted by the impressive parade of directors happy to talk about their time at Hogwarts.
Alfonso Cuarón recalls how he asked his stars to write an essay about their character – only for Rupert to take a very Ron Weasley approach to the homework – while Mike Newell is hugely entertaining in his refusal to sugarcoat Goblet of Fire’s themes of death and conflict, even going so far as to fight on set with the actors playing Fred and George Wesley to make their punch-up believable. David Yates, meanwhile, speaks of treating the young adults like adults, as the series became darker and darker.
A nifty use of a pensieve makes the inevitable in memoriam segment less mawkish than it could have been, while Alan Rickman turns out to still be one step ahead of his costars, as Radcliffe and Oldman discuss how he always knew Snape’s full arc.
All this is directed by Eran Creevy (Welcome to the Punch) with handsome production values, using the Warner Bros studio tour to excellent effect – we get to see the Great Hall, Dumbledore’s office and potions classroom all over again. That alone would be reason enough for fans to tune in, but this Return to Hogwarts serves up enough insight, amusement and affection to make this more than a mere nostalgia trip.