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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Book Thief' falls short of potential

It is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Markus Zusak

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Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) reads to Max (Ben Schnetzer), who's hiding in her home in 'The Book Thief.' (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

The Book Thief

(PG-13)

1 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

If you walk into a movie that is set in Nazi-occupied Germany and it is narrated by the Grim Reaper himself, you have a reasonable expectation that it will be at least moderately visceral and ear-pinning but that is not close to the case with “The Book Thief.” Based on the best-selling young adult novel of the same name by Markus Zusak, “The Book Thief” is overflowing with all of the best intentions but has been reduced down to the cinematic equivalent of soy milk or non-alcoholic beer. No movie with a setting and subject matter this intense should ever come across so toothless and inconsequential.

Not since “The Sound of Music” has early 1940s Germany been presented with such bucolic placidity. If it weren’t for the swastika symbol on flags sprouting from each home and adorning the clothing of its’ inhabitants, the fictional town used here could easily double as backdrop from a Hallmark holiday card or sound stage for a basic cable afterschool special movie.

The opening scene is easily the best in the film and sets the audience up for huge upcoming disappointment. The Grim Reaper (voiced by baritone Roger Allam) sardonically introduces himself not by name but with a job description at the same time a young child dies and is buried. The trickling from the child’s nose is the only blood seen in the film.

The child was the brother of Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), the daughter of an unnamed Communist mother who is fleeing Germany for Russia. It was the mother’s desire to deliver both children (and a modest stipend) to childless couple Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). In a very botched “good cop, bad cop” riff, Hans is a sweet, giving, accordion-playing, out-of-work commercial painter under the thumb of shrew Rosa, an unforgiving, no-nonsense taskmaster who berates Liesel the second she arrives and barely lets up for the duration.

In an almost equally ham-handed plot wrinkle, Hans discovers that Liesel is illiterate and, with kid gloves, teaches her how to read. From this point on, she devours books. About halfway through the film, the Nazis stage a book-burning in the city square and although a similar scene took place in “Fahrenheit 451,” the message here feels stagey, forced and tone-deaf.

A nod to “The Diary of Anne Frank” comes via the arrival of Max (Ben Schnetzer) the 20-ish son of a Jewish soldier who saved Hans’ life in WWI. Although able to cover great distances in order to arrive, Max becomes immobile after getting to the home and his health rapidly declines even further while hiding out in the family’s basement.

In addition to playing it ultra-safe with writer Michael Petroni’s tepid screenplay, director Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”) makes some huge, yet largely avoidable technical gaffes. Although unnatural, it is customary in mainstream Hollywood films for characters with native foreign tongues to speak fluent English (and often with English accents) — you know, so people don’t have to deal with those pesky subtitles. Here, characters often mix German and English in the same sentence and some of the German comes without subtitles. It is a constant and irritating reminder that you’re watching a movie.

Percival’s biggest mistake comes toward the end in the aftermath of an air raid on the town. Although crushed by their homes and exploding bombs, victims of the attack are placed side by side in the rubble without a single scratch or drop of blood on them — it looks as if they’re merely sleeping.

It’s hard to slam a film with such noble intent but when making a movie about death and war, you can’t sugarcoat it to such a degree and expect anyone to take it or its message seriously.

Presented in English and occasional German with and without English subtitles. (Fox)