Life is Beautiful, this is a movie that succeeds mostly on charm. And despite my bone-deep cynicism about almost everything, The Book Thief crept under my guard. True: it's a story-book vision of a fairy-tale Germany, complete with WWII movie conventions from a different age - hidden Jew, book-burning, over-the-top score, stodgy, sanitized settings - but it turns these things to its advantage, creating not a children-in-wartime film, but a children's film. While the setting is somewhat idealized, I found it beautiful enough to sweep away concerns about realism.
It's based on a book:
Liesel Meminger is a young girl in World War II Germany, who steals her first book from the frozen graveside of her brother. Abandoned, she is taken in by a pair of quirky but affectionate foster parents, with whom she is to endure the war. Her love of words and stories gives her hope in a world where childhood is quickly unraveling.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. The story is given another twist, however, by the fantastical, mythical background, which lends a sweeping, universal feel to the narrative. I've read (and reviewed) the book - and this is not a very good adaptation, at least when it comes to that element. It's lighter, cleaner, and has a completely different tone. Given his iconic status, Death is still the narrator, but this doesn't work on-screen, feeling instead intrusive and arbitrary, if not silly. (It's not helped by the fact that I've seen the actor in other things, and he's got a teddy-bear face, not to mention his rolling, sonorous voice.)
Overall, it was a refreshingly optimistic look at humanity - and unlike Life is Beautiful, it gives us pictures of hope, but not hope sprung of ignorance, an illusion only - but something more tangible and everlasting. Haunting, even.