Narrated by Death himself (solemn-voiced Roger Allam) but, alas, not adapted by him, this sumptuous, faintly unrealistic version of Markus Zusak’s best-seller bypasses wartime horror at every juncture. Angelic orphan Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) arrives in fictional Molching, Germany, in 1938 with separation anxiety and an inability to read. Kindly foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush, mainly defined by his jaunty accordion playing) and Rosa (Emily Watson, sweet under a tough exterior) fix both problems in what feels like a matter of weeks. Soon, Nazis start roughing up the townsfolk, but Liesel has unerring moral instincts, hiding a brotherly Jew in the cellar and softening hearts all around, while developing into an avid reader.
Where the book had a kernel of intellectual irony to it—words betray a nation—this drama goes shamelessly for the heart. Viewers can do better when it comes to child’s-eye perspectives (the recent Lore, about a Hitler Youth left to fend for herself, is breathtakingly bold), and both Zusak and the filmmakers grab at a randomly downbeat conclusion that feels incidental to the evil of the time.