By Dan Cowan   Published Jun 01, 2004 at 5:29 AM

{image1} Harry Potter's hitting the multiplexes again. Prepare for an onslaught of action figures and happy meal tie-ins. The big news surrounding this third film in the popular franchise is the installment of Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien," "The Little Princess") as director. Taking the reins from Chris Columbus, who directed the previous two films, Cuaron takes the film in a noticeably more mature direction. More about that later.

First -- the story. Potter-philes likely know this like the back of their hand, but for the uninitiated: As everyone's favorite junior wizard prepares for year three at Hogwarts Academy, he learns he's being pursued by an escaped murderer. Obviously that's not a good thing. In an attempt to protect him and other wayward students, the school is policed by an army of menacing grim reaper-like entities dubbed dementors (who also seem to have it in for young Harry). What's a wizard to do? Well, if you're Harry Potter, the answer is figure out why this Sirius Black character is trying to kill him.

So, the big question ... Is Cuaron able to live up to the standard set by Columbus' films? The answer is an emphatic "yes" and then some. With a much tighter pace, a less strict adherence to the book's storyline and a new visual style, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is a breath of fresh air, a much needed change of pace for the Potter saga. Yet, at the same time, the movie presents enough familiarity to make fans of the previous two flicks feel right at home.

Cuaron deserves to be commended for his visual approach. Unlike Columbus' synthetic fairy tale world, Cuaron adopts a more organic, "real life" style, utilizing a more earthy color palette as well as a stronger use of nature in his scenes. As a matter of fact, the whole setting seems to have more of a lived-in appeal. Special effects are also much smoother and less obvious, meaning either CGI technology is getting better or Cuaron is doing a nicer job of covering up the seams.

With two films already under its belt, the young cast is really coming into its own with film three. Cuaron manages to get a lot more emotion out of his three lead actors. I mean, Harry gets mad. Several times! The dialogue feels a lot less forced this time out, which makes the film feel much more credible.

Even the ending (which I won't give away) was surprisingly poignant. It's worth noting that a lot of the supporting cast is only given minimal screen time, save newcomer Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) who acts as Harry's mentor throughout much of the film. Although you really can't fault Cuaron for that - the cast gets larger with each edition in the series. You have to cut somewhere. Michael Gambon has no problem fitting into the shoes of Albus Dumbledore, giving the old sage a dash of youthful enthusiasm, not to mention a couple of the movie's more humorous lines.

The story itself is the darkest of the three and at times is really quite creepy. Go figure! The dementors are worth the price of admission alone. Every time these creatures show up on the screen, the film seems to be at its best.

Finally, it's worth noting that John Williams provides a strong score, mixing familiar themes with lots of new, unique compositions. The renaissance-style music is a particularly enchanting choice, given the castle setting and the English countryside.

All in all, the latest Harry Potter movie is a fun ride, one that will surely hold your interest from beginning to end, whether you're a fan of the series or not.

"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" opens in Milwaukee theaters on Friday, June 4.