It’s no easy thing making an original-feeling World War II movie.

The category for a long time was the Thomas Kinkade of cinema: at first idealized and false, though not without a certain kitschy appeal. Then came movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, where we started to see a bit more of the horror of war and the glimmers of humanity through that darkness.

The Book Thief is a bit of both.

Based on the bestselling novel by the Australian author Markus Zusak, the son of German and Austrian parents, this story is told from the German point of view — and probably not coincidentally, begins with voice-over narration by Death himself (the voice of Roger Allam).

It begins in a sea of puffy clouds, with Death reminding us of the “small fact” that we will die.

The camera sinks to a nearly monochromatic, snowy German landscape, then inside a gloomy train, where — in one of a million lingering, slow shots of beautiful, damaged humans—we see a young girl with curly blonde hair watch her brother breathe his last.

This is Liesel Meminger, who’s being given up for adoption by her mother, a member of the Communist party who can no longer afford to keep her because of Nazi political recriminations.

Liesel, played by Sophie Nélisse, is the center of the story, though not necessarily its heart, as wonderful as she is in the role.

That function would be split by her adoptive parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.

The Hubermanns might well be two halves of a fully functional human being. Hans is soft and gentle where Rosa is harsh and practical. Hans is generous and noble where Rosa is borderline ruthless. But they both love Liesel, as does the boy next door, Rudy (played winningly by Nico Liersch).

Rush is fantastic in the role, and his banter with Watson’s Rosa provides the movie with ample moments of genuine humor — a tough tone to hit perfectly in an otherwise serious story. And the scenes where he gives reading lessons to Liesel, who has stolen a book, are lovely, as is the basement blackboard she fills throughout the tale.

But of course, not much time passes before the new family encounters a serious complication, one that could end with the worst possible punishment under the Nazi regime.

This is where viewers can appreciate some lovely and subtle storytelling touches. At a book burning ceremony held by the Nazis, for example, Liesel steals a still-smoking book and is spotted doing so by a mysterious woman in a car—a setup that is paid off nicely at later points in the movie.

The score by John Williams is also lovely. And there are also some moments of dazzling writing that come straight from Zusak’s source material. The line where Death says most people rushing off to war think they are fighting their enemies, “but really, they are running toward me,” captures so much about the foolishness of humans and the way we spend our finite hours.

Fans of the book will miss certain scenes, but the spirit of the tale and much of its glorious language remains intact in the screenplay by Michael Petroni and the direction by Brian Percival. And at two hours and five minutes, the running time feels satisfying and not overly sentimental.

If the movie does make the German side of the war feel a bit airbrushed (and indeed, it leaves out much of the soot of the book), there is arguably a reason for it. The story is told from Death’s point of view, and as the character confesses, he is haunted by humanity. He sees the beauty and complexity of the souls he takes with him. So of course the movie will be rich in slow shots of well-lit faces.

On the whole, The Book Thief manages to feel both fresh and classic. It deserves to be a movie families flock to during the holidays, and they can safely do so, as the violence depicted is not extreme. What’s more, it avoids being aggressively “heartwarming” — something you can get for free online through Upworthy or any number of adorable kitten videos.

Rather, what’s refreshing is its focus on authentic compassion and courage over pyrotechnics, on humanity over spectacle, a rare thing in movies today. The movie is intelligent, funny, hopeful and sad all at once, much like its source material — and much like a life well-lived.