Though there are still plenty of Harry Potter fans in Gen Z, I fear that most of these kids will never appreciate just how bonkers many of their millennial predecessors went for the famous wizarding series back in the day, myself included. How many of these youths can say that they went to the midnight release of a book, or bought so much Hufflepuff regalia over the years that their bedroom looks like a giant bumblebee exploded? I’m guessing not many. The Harry Potter craze of the 2000s was a uniquely insane era, and it is an insanity that many of us have carried with us well into adulthood. Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is a cheery, nostalgic look back at this mad minute of magic, although Muggles (that is, newcomers to the series) might find this celebratory documentary a bit too mystifying to metabolize.
After a cheesy and uncomfortably scripted introduction, Return to Hogwarts gets the quaffle rolling with an examination of the first two films in the series, 2001’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and 2002’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The entire two-hour special follows this general format, tackling two movies per segment via cast discussions and behind-the-scenes clips, mostly relegating the books to the background. Considering the sheer number of thespians that were involved with the eight movie epic, the fact that they were able to get so many famous names to return is quite impressive, even if I inevitably began to wonder who was there just for the paycheck (certainly not Helena Bonham Carter, who seemed to be having a blast and was the undeniable life of the party). The retrospective also had the awkward job of distancing the legacy of the Harry Potter films from author J.K. Rowling after her recent problematic (and well publicized) comments, which I won’t get into here, and in this it mostly succeeds by keeping the focus mostly on the filmmakers. For book purists this might be a bit of a let down, but for fans of the movies (as they are indeed very different beasts) this focus is ideal.
As a Potterhead who enjoys both, I did find myself wishing they would have spent more time on each of the movies, as 15 minutes or so really isn’t enough time to fully explore the process of bringing a single book to the screen. At the same time, two hours felt a bit long for this sort of thing, so I ultimately would have preferred a miniseries that devoted two one-hour episodes to each film, or something to that effect. My only other criticism of Return to Hogwarts was its lack of a master-of-ceremonies-like role, which could have given the documentary a bit more cohesion as it moved from piece to piece. Daniel Radcliffe himself was probably the closest the retrospective had to this, as he sometimes would ask fellow cast members interview questions, but he was still far from ubiquitous.
Overall Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is a magical trip down memory lane, but like all retrospectives of its ilk, it is probably a trip that should only be made by those intimately familiar with the subject. Muggles might want to stay away, but for everyone else, welcome home.
Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is now available on HBO Max.