Return to Hogwarts is the latest Harry Potter product to trade in empty nostalgia for sole the purpose of propping up the money-making franchise.
As we reach the apotheosis of the cottage industry that is Harry Potter nostalgia, a reunion special was bound to come along sooner or later. Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return To Hogwarts welcomes several members of the cast and each of the series’ directors back to the preserved Hogwarts sets for conversations and interviews, reminiscing on the decade they spent as part of the Potter universe. As might be expected, the bulk of the film focuses on the three lead actors (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) and their memories of filming, but also features brief visits to other cast members, Radcliffe loosely interviewing a handful of other stars, talking-head interludes, and behind-the-scenes footage. The film wisely sidelines more controversial figures from the franchise, including writer J.K. Rowling, who is relegated to a few bookend comments from 2019 footage, but doesn’t address the less obvious absences of several heavy-hitters from the films. Respected vets like Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, and Davis Thewlis seemingly declined the invitation, and the primary contributors here are instead almost entirely the younger cast members, adding to the overwhelming sense of mindless nostalgia. This approach produces a few mildly interesting anecdotes, such as when one of the Weasley twins actors cracked Mike Newell’s ribs while rehearsing a fight scene, the outbreak of teenage hormones on the set of Goblet of Fire, and Daniel Radcliffe’s recollection that Richard Harris genuinely believed that the animatronic phoenix was a real bird, but mostly the film is limited to little more than these special features style tidbits. Anything of actual substantive interest beyond mere fan-servicing is quickly dispensed with, banished almost as soon as it arrives and threatens to upset the interviews’ general airiness — in particular, discussion of Emma Watson’s potential departure from the series before the fifth installment is shelved, with a staunch refusal to explore the intense objectification and sexualization she was subjected to in the press and fandom, or even the impact that growing up on-screen might have had on the cast’s mental well-being more generally. Of course, the omission is predictable, as the subject matter isn’t a tidy fit with the film’s tone of a lighthearted trip down memory lane, but it also would have provided a much-needed respite from the relentless celebration, and a modicum of depth beyond all the constant self-congratulation.
The impulse that I’m sure anyone reading this might have (and one that I’m feeling myself) is to wonder the value of writing criticism on something like this, why trade in cynicism about a work so many audiences genuinely love? Besides, even if reunion specials like this are typically nothing more than cash grabs for those involved, capitalizing on nostalgia by spinning a few stories and getting to wax wistful with old colleagues, a payday is their prerogative. The problem, then, isn’t that Return to Hogwarts exists, or even that it’s deeply average (what reunion special isn’t?), but that it props up the continuing industry that is Harry Potter, flogging the dead horse purely because it keeps spitting out money, and without giving anything of note back to viewers. This special, relatively lazy and desperately easy to swallow, is fine in the same way the hundreds of different styles of fast-fashion Hogwarts house merchandise is fine — fans can enjoy it, consume it, and its existence is fine for those who hold it dear to their hearts, but the thing itself is flimsy, little more than a continuation in the downward trajectory of the franchise’s media. At this point, there seems little left to do but see how mediocre the content can get before the money-grubbers break the power of Harry Potter nostalgia.
You can currently stream Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts on HBO Max.