Very rarely, we're given the great and deep privilege of seeing a movie that reaffirms our collective humanity and opens us to worlds of joy and hope and pain and fear and love that we never knew existed. Movies that are emotional and spiritual journeys as much as they are a collection of images strung along a narrative. Such movies come along hardly ever, but it's the hope of seeing one just once that fuels the most fervid and passionate cinephilia, and stumbling across such a transcendent moment is the finest pleasure of the film-lover's life. The Book Thief is the polar opposite of that kind of movie.

It's about a dewy-eyed little girl in Germany in World War II, and if you're anything like me the klaxons are already wailing in your head, everything is turning bright red, and Engineering is pleading that the she canna take much more of this abuse, captain. Surely, there has been one great movie about beatific children in World War II, if only because there have so many of the motherfuckers that sheer numbers dictate that at least one of them has to have worked out. The Book Thief, at any rate, is not that one. It's as pandering as the form can possibly allow for, presenting not one single idea that hasn't been flogged down to the bone over the past 60 years, and spackling over its emaciated drama with suffocating production values that ooze respectability and class and refinement. By which I particularly mean a John Williams score that is shameless, shameless even if you're not ordinarily offended by Williams's more sentimental gestures. Shameless, and worse still, highly derivative: it feels like a remix of several of the composers earlier works. Or like James Horner doing an impression of the Hook soundtrack. It's treacly, sing-songy bullshit, is what I mean to say, and frequently too bubbly and tinkling for the moments its accompanying, even on the level of gloppy emotional manipulation.

But Williams is merely rubbing salt in the wound. The greater problems with The Book Thief have already torpedoed it long before one even notices the music. Even before we've met any of the characters, in fact, as the film opens with a honey-voiced narrator (Roger Allam), who drops enough hints for us to figure out by the end of his first speech that we are being told a story by Death. The ghastliest possibilities of this flourish (which I understand was present as well in the YA source novel by Markus Zusak) don't make themselves clear until almost all the way at the end, when Death tells us in pleasant tones what happened as he took the lives of all the people who've featured into the plot in a major way, but the whole movie is kind of insta-ruined from the moment this ironic but friendly Death crops up and promises a tone of magical realist lightness that is quite possibly the last thing I'd ever want out of a movie that even tertiarily touches on the Holocaust.

The plot, anyway, finds young Liesel Merminger (Sophie Nélisse) deposited in a small German town by her Communist mother when she is forced to flee the country. Here, Liesel - who is illiterate, much like in The Reader - "much like in The Reader" is an unfortunately handy phrase to have ready with this movie - lives with the Hubermanns, kindly and imaginative Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and stern, angry homemaker Rose (Emily Watson), a couple united only by the outrageous awfulness of their German accents. Liesel makes a little friend in the form of the lovelorn Rudy (Nico Liersch), learns of the nastiness of the Nazis during a book-burning that happens right around the time that Hans teaches her how to read, and catches the eye of fellow bibliophile Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer), wife of the local burgomeister. She also learns about the joy of words and writing from Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), the refugee Jew who comes to hide in the Hubermanns' basement, trading in a longstanding favor from the time his father saved Hans. This event is, presumably, the central hook of the entire movie, but director Brian Percival does not have any interest in modulating tones or perspective enough to privilege one bit of the movie over another, and the whole matter of the sick Jewish man whose presence could send the whole household to the camps isn't presented as mattering any more than Rudy's habit of asking for a kiss; not to Liesel (which is, potentially, a good aesthetic choice), and not to the audience (which is emphatically not).

Really, Percival's only functions here are to make Simon Elliott's storybook Wartime Germany production design look glowing and romantic, aided by cinematographer Florian Ballhaus, and to keep the actors from smacking into walls, or I don't know what. He's certainly not guiding them to any truths about their characters, or in Watson's case, preventing her from speaking with an accent on loan from Hogan's Heroes. Indeed, there's a real possibility that we're looking at career-worst work from both Watson and Rush: the former switches from icily Germanic wicked stepmother to nervous, caring woman full of all the love in the world without laying the groundwork for it at all (to be fair, the script does much the same thing), while the latter takes one single emotional register - fatherly warmth - makes it as big as he can, and never makes another acting decision again for the whole rest of the movie.

Setting aside its failures of execution, The Book Thief never manages to answer the big question: why the hell do we care about any of this? Maybe better writing and acting could make the characters interesting enough to follow on their own, but none of them - and protagonist Liesel least of all - is anything but a fuzzy mass of adjectives (noble! innocent! loving! illiterate!) that doesn't emerge from the well-appointed sets. All that leaves us with is some inscrutable observation that in World War II, there was a sad. This is insight-free, morally shallow tosh, the worst kind of Oscarbait presented without any distinction in a style for which the word "bland" is impossibly too generous. That kind of emptiness is a pity in any movie, but for a film on these topics, it's an artistic sin.