When I was a kid, my mother would hide my Harry Potter books before school exams. It was during one of those Potter-starved bouts that I chanced upon the films, and fell more in love with the rich world of Hogwarts.
The movie adaptations may not have been anywhere close to the books, however they did something incredible. They gave something tangible to the abstract magical world of the series and a whole generation saw themselves manifested in fictional characters.
Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts, which aired on Amazon Prime Video on January 1, is much like the films — leaves us wanting in terms of the story, but brings back all that childlike wonder to people like me, who grew up with and loved these characters.
A homecoming years in the making
All faults aside, the one thing the Harry Potter movie franchise got exactly right was the casting, almost all of which was thanks to the team behind the first two movies including director Chris Columbus. The clip of Radcliffe, Grunt and Watson’s first screen test together is proof that they were meant to be.
I doubt we’ll see a reboot anytime soon (If it happens, please let it be a TV-spin off that includes missing details from the books!) but the prospect of seeing the cast together again is what got me most excited about the special.
Return to Hogwarts isn’t exactly a “reunion,” and you will be disappointed if you go in with expectations of witnessing one. Unlike what the behind-the-scenes and pre-launch photographs suggested, most of the cast don’t meet each other during the 102 min runtime, and not all the actors significant to the series return for this one.
The opening sequence, where some of the cast members chance upon a Hogwarts letter feels caricaturish, however all nitpicking is almost instantly forgotten with the first notes of John Williams’s theme Harry’s Wondrous World. Just like with the films, I feel like I am home.
The magic of memorable times
The special did give the books their due. Dividing the segment by one or two books and dissecting the adaptations with the respective directors gives insight not only into the whole process the entire crew went through, but also lots of fun trivia. My life is a little richer knowing that Daniel Radcliffe and Chris Columbus let the late Richard Harris believe that the animatronics model of Fawkes the phoenix was a real, trained bird.
My heart feels fuller being witness to the friendships that blossomed on these sets, and knowing things like Tom Felton didn’t give Watson a hard time over her crush and the two developed a close bond over the years. Seeing Felton interrupt Gryffindors Matthew Lewis and Alfred Enoch with Malfoy’s typical arrogance made me feel like I was 11 again, even though it was probably staged.
Watching Helena Bonham Carter meeting Gary Oldman as an old friend after murdering him on screen gave me the closure I didn’t know I needed. Like with the films, the best moments from Return to Hogwarts happen when the cast interact with each other.
The people and the characters
The special also brings out the contrast between the kids and the actors, and I’ll probably notice a lot more layers (and poor acting) when I watch the first few films again. It is surprising, and heartwarming, to know that the first film had a cast composed largely of 11-year-olds who, by the admission of the cast, were just having fun.
What was also interesting was learning about the actors’ experiences growing up as part of a worldwide phenomenon, and the milestones and struggles they faced as people when going through the process. Almost every member of the main cast had their own challenges to overcome with the fame. Rupert Grint’s struggles with stardom is an insight into the sacrifice he made to make me laugh at the “Ron Weasley being a mood for 4 minutes” compilations. There is also something wholesome in the knowledge that the Weasleys, and the Malfoys, found a closer family within the larger Hogwarts family.
However, Return to Hogwarts doesn’t give you time to settle into your feelings. It is agonising, when there is a swift cut to a different segment the moment the cast shares a genuinely emotional moment, except at the very end. Just like the films.
Remembrance and goodbyes
The fact that many from the cast are not around anymore was always going to weigh in and I was skeptical about how it would be handled. The emotional tribute, which was handled with subtlety and no dramatisation, was a pleasant surprise. They chose to honour the influence Alan Rickman, Richard Harris, Richard Griffiths, Helen McCrory and others had on the child actors by letting them talk about the impact these mentors had during their formative years in front of the camera.
It also made the perfect segue to the end and the goodbyes. The one with Grint and Watson, where they fought back tears and acknowledged that this team and these people will always be family stands out.
I was glad to see that the special ended with a love letter to fans like me, who found that they (finally) belonged among the misfits of Hogwarts. The fan in me felt an inexplicable joy, witnessing that Harry Potter meant as much to Daniel Radcliffe, as he did to me. I didn’t expect to, but I weeped along with my childhood icon before the screen finally cut to black. Just like the films.