Jules Heath
November 20, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

When little orphan Liesel (13-year-old Sophie Nélisse) first meets her foster parents in 1939 Germany, her frosty new mom (Emily Watson) hisses, ”Look at the girl. She’s filthy.” But grime is exactly what’s missing from this schmaltzy take on Markus Zusak’s 2005 best-seller, The Book Thief, directed by frequent Downton Abbey helmer Brian Percival. The Liesel we see is spotless; she has adorable pin curls and radiates klieg-light levels of wholesomeness. As she comes of age during wartime, the terrors of the Third Reich are bathed in a cozy, Thomas Kinkade-style glow that makes even swastika flags seem like festive holiday decorations, and any plot point that wouldn’t pair with a swell of violins has been neatly excised. It would make for a pretty ghastly pageant if not for smart, understated turns by Watson and Geoffrey Rush as the charmingly Teutonic couple who rescue both Liesel and a stranded Jew (Ben Schnezter) — not to mention the movie itself — with honorable matter-of-factness. B-

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