June 08, 2004 04:00 PM

The last time director Alfonso Cuaron got caught up in a whirlwind of attention was in 2001, when Y Tu Mama Tambien sent shockwaves through his native Mexico with its depictions of two teenaged boys discovering sex.

Given its sexually oriented theme, it may have seemed odd that Warner Bros. (which, like PEOPLE, is part of Time Warner) picked the filmmaker to take the reins for its hit adolescent franchise and let him direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

But, Cuaron, 42, tells PEOPLE, “Thematically, I found the two movies to be very similar.” He saw the new Potter film – the third in the series – as something more than just about “wizards and boarding schools,” but about a budding teenager struggling to find himself, much like Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Of Azkaban, says Cuaron (who has declined to direct the fourth Potter, not that he wouldn’t come back to the series later): “This is the story of a kid looking for his identity as a teenager. I fell in love with the material, and I just saw myself doing it.”

Cuaron – after making actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint write essays on their characters before the film started – described his own adolescence as miserable. “I would never go back to those years. No way. That was a tough period. But I enjoyed watching these teenagers.”

And asked whether the new movie – which debuted at No. 1 at last weekend’s box office and opened stronger than the previous two Potter films – might be a little too scary for children, Cuaron shrugged and said: “I think it’s scary for the parents. … Kids love the scary part. Parents are concerned about their kids getting scared, so they get even more scared.”

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