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updated: 11/14/2013 11:44 AM

Narrator, Disney-esque treatment mar WWII drama 'The Book Thief'

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  • Liesel (Sophie NÚlisse) breaks into the burgomaster's library to snatch some words in "The Book Thief."

      Liesel (Sophie NÚlisse) breaks into the burgomaster's library to snatch some words in "The Book Thief."

  • Video: "The Book Thief" trailer

 
 

That "The Book Thief" succeeds at achieving a Walt Disney-esque view of Nazi Germany is already dubious praise.

In this PG-13 world created by director Brian Percival, Nazis never actually kill anybody. They're just hooligans and bullies who march around, burn books, rough up the local Jews and communists, and occasionally send undesirables away on very long trips.

They do these things among impeccable sets and while clothed in superbly rendered period costumes that provide "The Book Thief" with an authentic sense of place and time, if still something slightly short of stark reality.

A series of small bad decisions hampers this handsome adaptation of Markus Zusak's World War II-set novel, starting with the subtitles.

"The Book Thief" begins with characters speaking German, translated by English subtitles (white letters smartly affixed to a black info box so that no matter how light or dark the background gets, we can clearly read them).

Then the characters start speaking in English mixed with German, until, finally, they dump the German and go with all-English dialogue.

Wait! Not really. Michael Petroni sprinkles his screenplay with German words such as "mine," "da" and "ja," which only draw attention to the fact that these German characters aren't really speaking German at all.

Petroni also makes a major miscalculation by being too faithful to Zusak's source material. He employs a British-accented Death (supplied by Roger Allam) to narrate this story with superfluous and sometimes ridiculous observations that might seem profound in a written narrative, but come across as intrusive and pretentiously pompous on the silver screen.

Death tells us, "I make it a policy to avoid the living. Except sometimes I can't help myself ... Liesel Meminger caught me ... and I cared."

He says this in 1938 as young Liesel Meminger (Sophie NÚlisse) and her little brother travel by rail to meet their new adoptive parents. Her brother dies aboard the train. We never truly know why.

When Liesel arrives, she's met by super-nice Hans Huberman (Geoffrey Rush) and his acid-tongued, harpy wife Rosa (Emily Watson), who sees the negative side of everything.

Liesel is a sweet, quiet girl with moon-sized eyes and lips twisted in a perpetual pucker. She has a secret, one revealed when she can only sign her name with an "X" on the classroom chalkboard.

Lovable Hans takes it upon himself to teach Liesel how to read, first using a copy of "The Gravediggers Handbook" she finds on her brother's grave.

Liesel apparently grows to love books enough to rescue one from the ashes of a Nazi bonfire. Her action is noted, quietly, by Frau Hermann (Barbara Auer), wife of the local burgomaster. Later, she invites Liesel to avail herself to her well-stocked library, kept in memory of Frau Hermann's missing son, presumed dead.

"The Book Thief" moves along at deliberate slow speed, letting the characters and their quirks dominate the usual, expected action sequences and overwrought dramatics common to Hollywood's Nazi movies.

Even when Percival turns up the heat with an Anne Frank subplot -- Hans and Rosa hide a sick, young Jew named Max (Ben Schnetzer) first upstairs, then in the basement -- "The Book Thief" may simmer with suspense and intrigue but never comes to a full boil.

As Liesel, NÚlisse uses her open-book appeal to the max, taking this world, and us, into her innocence and hope. Rush provides plenty of avuncular appeal to Hans as Watson, demonstrating a real knack for intentionally accidental comedy, slowly reveals the big heart under all the insults and angst.

Schnetzer earns our empathy as the sickly Max, just as cute, charismatic young Nico Liersch pumps up the charm as Aryan blond Rudy, Liesel's new best friend.

As for the narrator, do we really need a disembodied Mr. Death to tell us, "One Jew thanked God for the stars that blessed his eyes"? Or tell us that nobody was a better friend to the Nazis than he was?

Sooner or later, doesn't Mr. Death take everybody?

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