What better way to start off your 2022 than by spending it at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? This comprehensive behind-the-scenes documentary brings back dozens of the cast and creatives behind the juggernaut Harry Potter series, some seeing each other again for the first time since filming wrapped on the final movie more than ten years ago. It serves as an emotional love letter to a franchise that has affected so many people around the world, myself included. Did you know that Voldemort’s nose was simply stickered on-set and removed with CGI? How about that Emma Watson very nearly stepped away from the series after Goblet of Fire? Plenty of surprising tidbits abound in this vital examination of a worldwide phenomenon. 

In high school, people used to pick on me and call me “Harry Potter kid” because I always had a J.K. Rowling text in my grasp. After watching this documentary, I have never felt so validated. Of course, Potter gradually got bigger and bigger, but with those final four movies, it reached a fever pitch of popularity and became a full-blown pop culture phenomenon. That it has touched so many people in the process comes as little surprise—Potter has always been about coming of age and being an outsider. Finding your chosen family who will stick with you no matter what remains a vital thematic throughline, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione established as one of the greatest cinematic trios of all time. 

Each of the actors are invited to the special in an adorable opening sequence that sees them all getting letters from Hogwarts to attend, wherever they may be. This includes Rupert Grint sitting in a cab; while an obvious skit, it evokes the spirit of Harry Potter right off the bat. Attention to detail is the name of the game here—instead of standard talking heads setups, an incredible atmosphere is established by reuniting clumps of actors or directors with one another amongst real sets, like Gringotts or the House Common Rooms. The subjects reminisce about their characters with an accomplished sense of pride, and share set stories that I had not heard much of beforehand. Certain details, like Alan Rickman being privy to Snape’s true intentions, have been written about previously, but hearing Gary Oldman and Daniel Radcliffe laugh about it together is a different thing entirely. 

The breadth of inclusiveness is particularly impressive, with several of the biggest names in the series returning to talk all things Potter. Creator and author J.K. Rowling, using footage recorded from 2019, gets to share her input, especially from the movie’s earliest stages and casting calls. The 20th anniversary special segments itself into four distinct chapters, each one laser-focused on two of the movie titles in the series. Every director brought their own spin on Potter, and had a completely different on-set relationship with the main trio. It is clear the majority of the cast holds a deep appreciation for Chris Columbus, the man who kickstarted this franchise into what it eventually evolved. The lighter tone and Columbus’s working relationship with the children caused a ripple effect, inviting audiences around the world to enter Hogwarts along with our characters. Columbus brought a warmth to the series that was sadly missed, as Potter dove into progressively darker territory. Columbus still looks fondly upon Potter, and shares his regrets about not returning for Prisoner of Azkaban

Other directors made an obvious mark, including acclaimed filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron and David Yates, who came on for the final four movies in the series and directed the Fantastic Beasts entries. Seeing the way in which the cast has affected one another may be even sweeter, including Emma Watson’s adoration for Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), and the warmth emanating from Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid). The cutest reunion for me amongst the entire group was between Bellatrix Lestrange actress Helena Bonham Carter and Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe. She recites an adorable letter he wrote for her that she still has on her phone, in which he opines that he wished he had been born “ten years earlier” so he would have stood a chance. The two giggle together like schoolchildren, and race through Gringotts before settling for their chat at the Lestrange vault. The main trio of Rupert, Emma, and Daniel receive ample time to rattle off their candid thoughts about one another, and the series as a whole. Making such a big deal about Ron and Hermione’s explosive kiss in Deathly Hallows was much appreciated, as this relationship is one of my absolute favorites.

With so much ground to cover, it comes as no surprise here that the runtime is nearly two hours. But with eight movies to discuss, some of the finer details fall through the cracks. As such, a variety of topics, such as Dobby’s death and that of the Weasley twins, are never really acknowledged. Still, every topic of discussion feels meaningful and insightful, and the majority is not anything the average Potter fan would be likely to know. A surprising amount of emotional depth drove me to tears multiple times. Once the documentary dips its toes into the world of an adoring “in loving memory” segment celebrating the real-life personas of those who have passed away, it really tugs at the heartstrings. 

The most effective bit of behind-the-scenes coming in the form of the final day of filming. When the last Deathly Hallows movie wraps for good, Rupert, Daniel, and Emma are all openly weeping, and it’s contagious. They grew up over the course of these movies, and so did I. As a 10-year-old little outsider reading my first Harry Potter book, I never envisioned that it would one day become one of the biggest film franchises of all time. Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts acts as a greatest-hits celebration of this monumental fantasy series, and makes me proud to still be a faithful fan of all things Potter.

Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts invites you back into the Great Hall when it debuts exclusively on HBO Max to ring in the New Year on Saturday, January 1st.

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