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Like so many years before it, 2021 is no stranger to reboots and reunions. “Friends,” “Gossip Girl” and “iCarly” had strong comebacks on streaming services, and Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited “West Side Story” remake hit theaters in December 2021. I shouldn’t have been so surprised to learn that Harry Potter was the next series to earn this special treatment, yet when HBO Max dropped the first trailer for “Return to Hogwarts,” I immediately freaked out and sent it to just about everyone I know.
I am one of the millions of people in the world who grew up under the influence of Harry Potter. I read the books when I was young, have rewatched the movies countless times and my first article for The Daily was about Harry Potter fans on TikTok. Having seen only a small part of the “Friends” reunion, I was worried that Harry Potter would receive the same casual, flashy treatment. I expected something more, and the special exceeded those expectations.
The reunion celebrates the 20th anniversary of the first film, but this year also marks the tenth anniversary of the last film. From the moment that John Williams’s familiar theme music filled my ears, the excitement of seeing so many people from my childhood back in the same room gave me chills. The special opens with cast members receiving a letter from “Hogwarts,” reading the Daily Prophet (the Wizarding World’s newspaper), boarding the iconic Hogwarts Express and walking into a huge dinner party in the Great Hall. Just about everyone is there: heroes, villains, friends and filmmakers across all eight films.
Of course, we can’t talk about Harry Potter without mentioning its controversial creator, J.K. Rowling. Despite Warner Bros.’ attempts to distance the company from the author’s exclusionary remarks about transgender people, as well as statements denouncing her viewpoints from several cast members, Rowling does appear in the special, though only in archival footage. Because she did not film a new interview for the special, she was not directly involved in the filming process. It is unclear how much money she will make from this reunion, if any at all, given that Warner Bros. and NBC Universal currently hold exclusive rights for the movies. (If you’re concerned about watching the special but don’t want to support Rowling, here is a guide to help you do both.)
Running at one hour and 43 minutes, “Return to Hogwarts” is broken up into chapters — for example, the first chapter, entitled “The Boy Who Lived,” encapsulates the first two movies. It’s interesting to hear stories about the actors’ childhoods and the time they spent on set before the Harry Potter franchise really exploded. Daniel Radcliffe (“Miracle Workers”) admitted that his parents didn’t want him to take on such a big commitment, since his contract required him to take on all seven films and traveling back and forth from Los Angeles to shoot would “largely disrupt” his life. But it proved to be worth it when the screen test between him, Emma Watson (“Little Women”) and Rupert Grint (“Servant”) as Harry, Hermione and Ron “just clicked.”
Discussions between each of the cast members took place on set, in famous locations like the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore’s office and Gringotts Wizarding Bank. Their conversations are interspersed with footage from filming, baby photos, deleted scenes and finished shots from the movies.
“It feels like no time has passed and loads of time has passed simultaneously,” Watson says in the beginning.
“Well I have had kidney stones and a baby, so time has obviously passed,” Grint replies.
There are some noticeable absences in the special — Molly Weasley (Dame Julie Walters, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”), Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall, “Spencer”), Remus Lupin (David Thewlis, “Zach Snyder’s Justice League”), Dumbledore (Sir Michael Gambon, “Judy”) and McGonagall (Dame Maggie Smith, “Downton Abbey”) do not appear, for reasons that haven’t been revealed. Several other cast members have since passed away, and the reunion features a beautiful segment in memoriam, paired alongside the quote, “The ones that love us never really leave us.”
I was surprised to learn that not all of the films’ magic is CGI. Visual effects are used often throughout. The candles floating in the Great Hall upon Harry’s first arrival to Hogwarts in “Sorcerer’s Stone” were real, tied to the ceiling with fishing wire (Radcliffe and Watson recounted when the candles started burning through the wire and falling on them while shooting). Fawkes, Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, was animatronic in “Chamber of Secrets.” The late Richard Harris (“Caesar”), who played Dumbledore in the first two films, believed the robot was a real bird. “We never told him (that it wasn’t),” said director Chris Columbus (“Cusp”).
One of the more satisfying aspects of the special is seeing just how similar everyone is to their characters — it’s almost too accurate. In preparation for filming “Prisoner of Azkaban,” director Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”) asked the “Golden Trio” to write a paper about their characters. Radcliffe wrote one page, Watson wrote twelve and Grint never turned his in. James and Oliver Phelps (“Last Night in Soho”), who played Fred and George Weasley, would mess with Grint before scenes to get him riled up — typical antagonizing behavior in a sibling relationship. Jason Isaacs (“Sex Education”) originally didn’t want to play antagonist Lucius Malfoy and read for the character “through gritted teeth,” which was ironically and perfectly in character.
What really hit home for me was that the Harry Potter films are a coming-of-age story at heart, and much of “Return to Hogwarts” focuses on this idea. The third and fourth films, “Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Goblet of Fire,” are darker than the first two movies, but viewers get to see these characters grow up and go through normal teenage experiences: Radcliffe even described his time on “Goblet of Fire” as “peak hormone.” Both the cast and the characters were at that age where everyone becomes more concerned with having crushes and dating (I could talk about the special’s “Dramione” content for hours), and then new groups of people were brought in to play the students of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang who were “purposefully hot for the film” (this line made me laugh out loud). By the end of “Goblet of Fire,” Harry, Ron and Hermione have left their childhood behind. The darkening trend continues through the rest of the series, especially in the “Deathly Hallows” movies when the trio is away from Hogwarts for the greater part of the films. And yet, “adversity forges friendships, as we all know,” said Mark Williams (“Father Brown”), who played Mr. Weasley. That statement is certainly true for Harry. His friendship with Ron and Hermione persists long after the final battle, and Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have also remained close 10 years after the series wrapped.
One of the franchise’s biggest themes is the importance of family, whether by blood or through relationships we’ve made with others. We as readers and viewers of the series have been a part of this coming-of-age story since the beginning, having grown up alongside these characters. While we may not be saving our school from a horde of Death Eaters, we have our own battles to fight each day. One could easily argue that the series has become a “home” for the fans — something that the actors are forever grateful for.
“There’s something about Harry Potter that makes life richer,” Watson said.
“I’m very proud to be a part of something that means so much to so many,” Grint added. “It will live on forever, and it’s amazing to see it.”
“As a person, as an actor, I feel so lucky to be where I am now, but none of it was possible without this,” Radcliffe finished, tearing up.
Harry Potter has always been a story of magic, friendship and bravery. Even now, a full decade after its ending, the impact that this franchise has on the world remains so clear. The characters feel like our friends; their families feel like ours. There’s a reason we all keep coming back to it so often (if the frequent TV marathons tell us anything). As the series continues to age I’d like to believe that it will always hold that level of importance, after all this time.
Daily Arts Writer Hannah Carapellotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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