Hogwarts in the Snow... is a Total Snow Job
I was unimpressed by the holiday additions to the Making of Harry Potter exhibit in northwest London.
For the audio version of this article, go here.
Living in London for the holidays, Michael and I recently visited Hogwarts in the Snow, a Christmas display at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour: the Making of Harry Potter.
Promotional materials promise:
“A very ‘Harry Christmas’ at…the most magical time of year, when iconic Harry Potter sets are dressed for the festive season in a blanket of filmmaking snow.”
The return of the Yule Ball in the Great Hall set, where visitors will be “stunned by the shimmering silver decorations, dripping icicles and sparkling snow.”
At the risk of sounding as humorless as Dolores Umbridge, I’ve seen more impressive Christmas decorations in shopping malls.
And not high-end shopping malls either. Literally any shopping mall.
It turns out “dressed for the festive season in a blanket of filmmaking snow” means they basically just scattered some fake snow around a couple of sets.
Out in the admittedly impressive lobby, I said to Michael, “Hey, let’s take our picture over by that Christmas tree,” and he responded, “Oh, we’ll get much better pictures inside. I read they have thirty different Christmas trees.”
Which sounds like a lot, except I now realize that any shopping mall in existence probably has at least thirty Christmas trees.
Most of Harry Potter’s thirty trees are in the Great Hall, which is the first exhibit you see.
When it comes to Harry Potter at Christmas, here’s basically what I was expecting:
And here is the reality of the “Yule Ball” movie set:
Look, I’m a screenwriter. I know all about the “magic” of movies — that what you see on screen is very different even from the reality of the actual set.
But come on. This “Great” Hall is less than half the size of the one in the movies.
They also clearly didn’t kill themselves on their "Yule Ball” decorations. At one point, one of the guides pointed to the holiday additions and said, “It took us four weeks to do these icicles. Which is why we only did this one part here.”
And, sure, they looked okay, but her comment seriously begged the question: Why the hell didn’t this multibillion-dollar company that’s charging a $48 admission to this attraction — and is heavily advertising these holiday additions all over frickin’ London! — not simply hire more workers?
But again, fine. They can’t afford to completely transform the set just for the holidays.
Still, this is the Great Hall, right? And what is the single most indelible image from the Great Hall — and one of the most indelible images from all of Harry Potter?
Yes! Floating candles!
Do you see any floating candles in the set picture I posted, above?
No, you do not. Because there were no floating candles — except, I guess, one small part in some cafeteria somewhere that I never saw.
Also, visitors are only allowed seven minutes in the Great Hall, so you can imagine how happy that made Michael, our resident photographer.
As a tourist experience, The Making of Harry Potter apparently satisfies most hard-core fans of the films and books. The buzz I heard all around me was very positive.
Unlike some movie studio “tours,” this is definitely not a theme park. Warner Brothers sold the Harry Potter theme park rights to Universal Studios, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is now a wildly successful part of that studio’s various theme parks all over the world.
I suspect Warner Brothers is not thrilled they gave up those rights, although it should be noted that The Making of Harry Potter does sell butterbeer, which was, of course, only described in J.K. Rowling’s books but was actually created — to rave reviews — for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.
In other words, Warner Brothers sold the Harry Potter theme park rights to Universal, which then must have sold the rights to their version of butterbeer back to Warner Brothers. And as with anything Harry Potter-related, I suspect both studios, J.K. Rowling, and their many lawyers are all getting very rich.
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Speaking of J.K. Rowling, I wasn’t thrilled to be supporting her, given her increasingly militant views on gender, most of which I disagree with. Although, to be honest, I’m also disturbed by some of the increasingly deranged online attacks directed at her.
I’ve ultimately come to the conclusion that Harry Potter is greater than any one person, and I’m okay with celebrating the phenomenon itself, not to mention the achievements of the literally thousands of other book and movie people involved with making this thing a reality.
As for the Making of Harry Potter attraction, it’s a “self-guided” walk-through tour through the different sets and props from the eight Harry Potter movies. It’s a combination of real props, and actual sets and reconstructed ones.
Built by the original designers, of course. We’re told that a lot.
It’s all on display in an outdoor area and two “sound stages,” although these are not the actual sound stages where the movies were filmed. The whole area was created for the tour, and some of the “real” sets were moved here.
It’s very difficult not to be impressed by the craft and artistry that can be created with what must have been — at least with the later films — an essentially unlimited budget.
Although I did think it was weird that the costumes of the various characters are displayed on creepy and distracting faceless mannequins. Did Warner Brothers also sell the rights to waxwork figures of the different Harry Potter characters to Madame Tussauds?
I did learn some pretty interesting things, like the fact that Dolores Umbridge's costumes became increasingly pink the more autocratic she became. Pretty brilliant.
I wasn’t as underwhelmed by the tour as I was by the Christmas additions, but the truth is, I did leave the experience mostly unmoved. I thought: I could have missed this. It took a lot of effort to get here — three train changes and a bus transfer, on the day of a transportation strike, no less. And given the actual experience, it seems expensive.
Then again, I recently wrote about movie location tourism — how shooting locations can sometimes disappoint compared to the perfection and magic of the movie itself, but that, ultimately, our emotional connection to the location is directly related to our connection to the film.
I am, at best, a lackluster Harry Potter fan. I love the concept, and I’m in awe of the enormously fun world-building. Sure, it’s based on existing mythology, but I don’t buy the argument that Harry Potter is derivative, because Rowling created such an indelible world and specific tone.
I also think the movie series includes two outright great entries: Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince.
But I think the overall storytelling is wildly inconsistent. And the movie series also includes some very mediocre entries and even two outright stinkers: Sorcerer’s Stone and Deathly Hallows, Part 1.
And then there’s Goblet of Fire, which still annoys the living daylights out of me.
No, seriously, if Voldemort wanted Harry so bad, why didn’t he just have Moody replace Harry’s toothbrush with the portkey? The very first night, Harry grabs his toothbrush and — kablam! — he’s transported to the graveyard with Voldemort. Why the convoluted, year-long plan with the Goblet of Fire and the Triwizard Tournament, which — let’s face it — was pretty unlikely to result in Harry winning anyway?
And — excuse me! — what’s this business about a regular student tournament which includes risks so dangerous that students must routinely die?
Scene: Something extremely strange is going on at Hogwarts with this Goblet of Fire, and it seems very likely that the embodiment of ultimate evil, Voldemort, is somehow involved. Plus, if they continue the tournament, several students, including Dumbledore-fave Harry, could very likely die.
Dumbledore: “I really think we need to see this thing through!”
The first time I read this plot, I remember thinking, Really? I know American parents are way too litigious, but clearly British wizard parents aren’t nearly litigious enough.
Now someone is going to chime in in the comments, saying, “No, no, this convoluted plan of Voldemort’s, and Dumbledore’s clueless ineptitude, all make perfect sense because…!”
But this is exactly my point: if something in a story doesn’t make intuitive sense, it doesn’t make sense.
I’m a big believer in the idea that every writer is allowed one coincidence or contrivance per book or movie. But it often seems to me that without coincidences and contrivances, most of Rowling’s storytelling falls completely apart. I have a standing theory that virtually everything that happens in the Forbidden Forest is either a plot cheat or a major contrivance.
By now, I’ve laid all my cards on the table, and I know I probably haven’t convinced many people of Harry Potter’s storytelling deficiencies. But I suspect I have convinced you that I was not the audience for The Making of Harry Potter.
The occasional smatterings of snow may have been fake, but the whole thing mostly left me cold.
But don’t let me discourage you. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll probably enjoy this celebration of your affection.
Just don’t blink or you’ll miss the Snow at Hogwarts additions. And I’ll be very surprised if you think they add much to the whole experience.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. For more about Brent, visit him at BrentHartinger.com.
I’m really sad the experience didn’t even Exceed Expectations for you. It seems the makers took to heart Fred and George’s view that they “Exceeded Expectations just by turning up”.
Being a SoCal native, I’ve seen a few movie sets, “making of” videos, and even a live filming of a Star Trek Voyager episode, to know that, apart from seeing the actual performers at work, they never measure up to the finished project. Especially so for sci-fi and fantasy projects.
I’m very glad to know not to spend the travel time and money to see it, should I ever scrape up enough cash to enjoy the UK again. Very envious - the UK and London are my favourites of any place I’ve visited, back when I was going places instead of reading about them, lol!
So many thanks for the pics and review, Brent and Michael! I’m thrilled to have discovered your blog, it’s a lovely change from my usual diet of politics, art and fashion, all of which seem to become edgier and more polarised by the day.
An early Merry Christmas to you both!
And the best thing has got to be the statue of Ron on the chess knight’s horse. What a shame they are faceless, with all the other detail. Must be some clause in their contract, no images of the actors. Ugh.
You guys look great, too! Obviously the “vagabond” life agrees with you!