Courtesy of HBO Max

Fans of the “Harry Potter” film franchise, based on the books by J.K. Rowling, weren’t only counting down the seconds left to start the new year on Dec. 31. Instead, fans around the world also counted down the seconds left for the premiere of “Harry Potter: Return to Hogwarts” on HBO Max at 12 a.m. 

Both the books and the eight-film series have grown to hold a unique position amongst the entertainment world by continuing to have a special place in so many hearts around the globe. Though many can argue that this franchise is just that: a franchise, so many adults, just like myself, grew up with “Harry Potter” in their households. Even though I was a little too young to remember the monumental book releases, watching the movies became a large part of my childhood and family, even to the point where my siblings and I would memorize the lines together. This is why the film franchise and the cast as a whole are so special to so many of us, which also explains the global excitement to watch the HBO special. 

A large portion of the special focuses on the fact that the “Harry Potter” series is essentially a coming of age story, where we watch the characters grow in a continuously darkening world at the hands of Voldemort and his followers, the death eaters. The world of “Harry Potter” is anything but ordinary, but what all children and adults can relate to is its coming of age aspect where all throughout, we see the characters navigate through life obstacles that we can connect with in a world that we can mentally escape to. “Stories give us a place we can go where we can rest and feel held,” explains Emma Watson as she discusses why the series is so special amongst fans whose identities can often coincide with their enjoyment of it.

Though the special marks 20 years since the start of the film series, it also marks a little over a decade since the cast last met for the filming of the last movie, and the cast’s excitement to reunite added an extra pinch of wholesomeness for the already thrilled fans. The special, which runs for a little under two hours, is organized into segments, where couples of movies are talked about in order with different sections in between. However, this organization does not make the reunion feel staged at all. While reminiscing about memories during the filming of the series, the actors and the behind-the-scenes cast genuinely seem happy to reunite, making the special feel natural and not like another reunion or reboot aimed at simply making money. 

Among the actors to return are those who play the golden trio: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), alongside others like Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort), Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) and several others also appearing. The discussions amongst the actors present a strong balance between conversations about the bonds they shared behind the scenes, like how they used to fall asleep on each other’s shoulders during long filming days, and about the filming of some of the most loved scenes by fans, like the scene where Harry and Hermione dance in the “Deathly Hallows: Part 1.” Fans were also interested to learn that Fiennes had to undergo three hours of makeup to transition into the character of Voldemort and that Helena Bonham Carter kept a movie prop: Bellatrix’s fake teeth. 

A moment that had fans in tears is when the special pays tribute to cast members who have passed away, amongst them being Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore in the first two movies), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy) and Alan Rickman (Severus Snape). Though this tribute is emotional to watch, there is undoubtedly a sense of appreciation that can not be explained better than through the words of Robbie Coltrane, where he says, “The legacy of the movies… is that my children’s generation will show them to their children. So you could be watching it in 50 year’s time, easy. I’ll not be here, sadly, but Hagrid will.” The special concludes with parallelism to this thought with lines from perhaps the most pivotal moment in the whole series where audience members watch Snape’s memories in “Deathly Hallows: Part 2”: “‘After all this time?’ ‘Always.’” 

Verdict: “Harry Potter: Return to Hogwarts” is a wonderful watch to ring in the new year after a difficult year of 2021. It’s a special experience that is a testament to the fact that the franchise is as strong as ever and will last for generations to come. 

The special is available to stream exclusively on HBO Max.