Here's how the helmer of ''Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'' breathed new life into the franchise and helped his young wizards through their toughest spell yet: adolescence

By Jeff Jensen
June 04, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Harry Potter Cast Photograph by Matthias Clamer

”Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” the adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s third Potter novel, marks something of a franchise makeover, due mostly to new director Alfonso Cuarón, who auteured the randy coming-of-age Mexican import ”Y Tu Mamá También. Gone is franchise founding father Chris Columbus, brain-fried after the back-to-back shoots of the ”Potter” movies ”Sorcerer’s Stone” and ”Chamber of Secrets.” ”I was crispy,” says the director, king of such warm-fuzzies as ”Mrs. Doubtfire” and ”Stepmom.” ”I was done.” Columbus’ legacy: two movies that grossed $967 million and $866 million worldwide, respectively, yet were tarred by critics for being slavishly beholden to Rowling’s novels.

Mucking with a proven hitmaking potion might seem reckless, especially with a reported budget upward of $130 million to recoup. So why change? Well, the source material practically demands it. ”Azkaban” introduces adolescence — awkward, angry, hormonally charged — into the thematic mix, plus new dimensions of darkness (like the soul-sucking Dementors, the Azkaban prison guards searching for escaped killer Sirius Black, who in turn is searching for…someone) and narrative sophistication (like a looping, time-travel climax).