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"Harry' comes of age

Daniel Radcliffe, or Harry Potter to you, isn't talking about casting spells or Lord Voldemort. Instead, the 14-year-old is lusting after Cameron Diaz.

"I could fly to Los Angeles and introduce myself," Radcliffe says on the set of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. "I heard that she just broke up with her boyfriend."

Harry and the students attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry have suddenly grown into teenagers. And as the ages of the characters have multiplied, so too have the adolescent preoccupations of the actors who play them.

Rather than just idle banter, the offscreen Harry Potter conversations are really about what's going on in The Prisoner of Azkaban, which, if you strip away its Quidditch games and Patronus charms, is what it's like to become a teen.

Although Harry and classmates Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) still must fight the forces of darkness, they also face an array of struggles including the search for self-confidence, acceptance and identity.

Which helps explain why Warner Bros. has handed off its billion-dollar family franchise to director Alfonso Cuaron, whose last film was the low-budget, sexually charged coming-of-age story Y Tu Mama Tambien.

As Cuaron guides Radcliffe and Watson, 13, through a scene, it's impossible to ignore how quickly the actors are growing up. They are aging faster than the characters they depict, and their next film, 2005's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, might be their last.

Selecting Cuaron to take over seems reasonable and daring, especially for a studio that has played conservatively with the young wizard at every step. The stakes are arguably higher with the third film, as it will be released amid the highly competitive summer (it opens June 4) rather than the shelter of November, when the first two movies debuted.

The studio picked Home Alone's Chris Columbus to direct the first two Potter films, both runaway global blockbusters, grossing more than $1.8-billion worldwide. The movies were hits, but they weren't hip: Critics said they lacked the creative audacity and spark that make Rowling's books so memorable.

The studio wasn't trying to replace Columbus, but the director _ who first fantasized about making all seven movies (the number of books Rowling plans for the series) _ was ready for a change. He had lived in London for more than three years, long enough that his American children were starting to speak with British accents. Columbus wanted to move back to Northern California and pursue other movie ideas.

Warner Bros. knew Cuaron's work quite well. The studio had distributed Cuaron's 1995 film, A Little Princess, an adaptation of Frances Burnett's novel about a young girl who, not unlike Harry Potter, ends up in an unusual boarding school.

"That movie confirmed to me that he could live in the world of fantasy and children and not be treacly and also be a little bit dark," says Alan Horn, president of Warner Bros. "And in Y Tu Mama, he got such performances out of those two young boys. Now our protagonists in Harry Potter are 13, entering puberty, and he understands that."

Horn wasn't the only Little Princess fan. Rowling, too, had loved the film and even had ranked Cuaron just behind Terry Gilliam (Brazil) among her preferences to direct the first film.

But Cuaron didn't immediately say yes.

"I have to confess, I was a bit ignorant about the Harry Potter thing," Cuaron says. "So I read (screenwriter) Steve Kloves' script. And it was great. And then I immediately read the book. And I was, frankly, amazed by the book and the script."

Cuaron also saw advantages to directing a film in a series already under way, inheriting recognized characters and settings and actors familiar with the roles and known to the audience.

But he also knew much of his filmmaking canvas had already been sketched in.

Cuaron couldn't redesign Hogwarts, overhaul Diagon Alley or recast any lead roles (besides replacing Richard Harris, who played Hogwarts' head of school, Albus Dumbledore, in the first two films but died in October 2002). And Columbus would be looking over Cuaron's shoulder, remaining in London as one of the film's executive producers.

Harry Potter aficionados can argue long into the night about which is the best novel, and why. The young actors who play Harry, Ron and Hermione are united in their appraisal of their favorite, and it's The Prisoner of Azkaban. And no less than Steven Spielberg has said the third book is the most cinematic of Rowling's volumes.

If the first book introduced us to Harry's peculiar life story and magical gifts, the second book was more of a Hardy boys adventure. The third book is distinguished by its psychological complexity. Harry's misunderstood godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) and the avuncular Professor Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) become crucial characters in Harry's development, and the sinister Dementors arrive. The book's complex third act involves both time travel and Harry's moving discovery of an inner strength he didn't know he possessed.

"I think the audience will see it as a relative of the first two but as a very distinct piece of work," producer David Heyman says. The film could very well be rated PG-13, unlike its PG-rated predecessors.

The next installment, Goblet of Fire, will be directed by Mona Lisa Smile filmmaker Mike Newell.

"The whole goal of taking a franchise in a new direction is what keeps them alive," Cuaron says. "Jo Rowling said to me, "Don't be literal. Just be faithful to the spirit.' You might have hits and misses. But it's always going to be fresh."

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