June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

The nose is more distinguished, the cheekbones more pronounced, the hair stylishly tousled. Adolescence is remolding the Most Famous Boy in the World by the day — and not at all for the worse. But at the moment, while he has a minute to break from filming ”Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” Daniel Radcliffe wants you to check out his abs. ”Wanna see something freaky?” And he pulls up his blue T-shirt to reveal a wildly undulating moon-pale tummy. Apparently, someone on the crew is teaching Radcliffe to belly dance. He releases his shirt and plops on a sofa here in a dressing room at Shepperton Studios, outside London. His new trick has left him slightly winded, but smiling. ”I’m learning LOADS of stuff on this movie,” says Radcliffe, who is 13, and uses words like ”loads” a lot. ”Just…LOADS.”

New tricks — loads of them — are the order of the day in ”Azkaban,” the sequel to ”Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” sequel to ”Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Warner Bros.’ adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s third Potter novel marks something of a franchise makeover, due mostly to new director Alfonso Cuaron, who auteured the randy coming-of-age Mexican import ”Y Tu Mama Tambien.” Gone is franchise founding father Chris Columbus, brain-fried after the back-to-back ”Stone” and ”Secrets shoots.” ”I was crispy,” says the director. ”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, ancillary businesses worth hundreds of millions at stake, and no more ”Matrix”es and ”Rings” to keep Time Warner’s Wall Street watchers bedazzled. Professor Snape would not approve, and the studio knows it. ”Of course it feels risky,” says Warner Bros. president of production Jeff Robinov, overseeing his first Potter flick (see review on page 93). ”I don’t want to be the guy who takes down the franchise.”

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). No one in the Pottermaking world will say that Chris Columbus — king of the warm fuzzies (see: ”Mrs. Doubtfire,” ”Stepmom”) — was the wrong man for Azkaban. ”We wanted Chris to stay,” says Robinov. ”It was Chris’ decision not to move ahead.” At the same time, no one in Potterville is complaining about the switch. ”I am very proud of the first two movies,” says producer David Heyman. ”This one is special.” It’s as if Cuaron has given the studio’s Pottermakers a new golden key for future films. ”Liberating” is how house scribe Steve Kloves characterizes Cuaron’s most daring decision: a less literal approach to adaptation (see sidebar). ”It’s what I certainly needed,” says Kloves, who wrote the first three installments and the currently shooting ”Goblet of Fire” (due in theaters November 2005). ”And I think it’s what the series needed.”

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