''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).