Somewhere in the realm of Tim Burton meets Wes Anderson lurks Netflix’s new stop-motion anthology The House. Produced by Nexus Studios, the adult-oriented series tells three independent 30-minute stories about the humans and animals who live in the seemingly innocuous eponymous dwelling.
Directing the individual episodes are four indie animators: Belgium-based duo Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels, Swedish director Niki Lindroth von Bahr, and British director/actress Paloma Baeza. The show’s premise feels like a creative writing prompt in the best way, and each director uses the house motif as a launchpad into their own weird worlds. The resulting stories take place in different time periods with different species, but there’s a cohesiveness across the episodes’ themes and offbeat humor. Marketed as a dark comedy, The House is less concerned with laugh-out-loud jokes than peculiar ironies as the series ruminates on what it means to renovate oneself.
Taking place in the 1800s, de Swaef and Roels’ “Chapter 1” follows Raymond (Matthew Goode), an impoverished man who suffers from insecurity about his family’s standing. When a strange architect offers to build him a new house for free, he leaps at the opportunity. The most straightforward of the three stories, the plot riffs off a haunted house setup. De Swaef and Roels effectively block space to set the mood. With its lack of furnishings, there’s a palpable chill to the house’s emptiness that contrasts with the crowded warmth of the family’s cottage. Dark corridors and winding stairs make its spatial logic hard to follow, adding to the unease.
The human-based puppets themselves have an expanse of space surrounding their tightly clustered facial features. Fleshy foreheads and plum cheeks obscure emotions, giving the puppets a default vacancy. Mia Goth impresses as Raymond’s daughter Mabel, imbuing pathos into the puppet form despite the limited expressions. There’s also a novelty in grounding the story in Mabel’s POV, rather than focusing solely on Raymond. The story is more predictable than its successors though, and the tight pacing restraints limit what could’ve been a more effective slowburn.
Von Bahr tackles the surreal “Chapter 2,” which takes place in modern times—only this time, our protagonist is an anthropomorphic rat. Voiced by former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, the unnamed protagonist is a developer who’s sunk all his savings into flipping the house. Plagued by the bank and invading bugs, the developer stakes his self-worth on the project, and his desperation manifests into a frenetic energy. One memorable long-take focuses on the developer from behind as he explains kitchen features to open house visitors. Nothing the developer says is particularly untoward, but there’s something physically uncomfortable about watching the onlookers peel off one by one as he flails his arms.
“Chapter 2” is the standout of the trio, thanks to its heighted absurdities and caustic nature. While things don’t develop into full-blown horror, the story revels in grotesque animation when it comes to the creepy-crawlies. (It’s hard to resist the urge to check your sheets after the bombastic cockroach musical number.) The bugs also provide a nice antithesis to the developer’s need for control as Von Bahr explores the existential angst underlying his omnipresent headset and pressed suits.
Finally, Baeza considers a seeming post-apocalyptic setting populated with cats in “Chapter 3.” Floods have ravaged the land surrounding the house, and it’s left adrift, inhabited by a calico named Rosa (Susan Wokoma) and her free-spirited tenants, Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) and Elias (Will Sharpe). Rosa grew up in the house and dreams of restoring it to its former glory, but first she needs to raise funds by finding new renters. “Chapter 3” takes a more dreamlike tone with visuals like a neon vacancy sign flickering in milky white mist. This approach parallels how Rosa acts as if she’s in a different reality where the floods never happened. She’s stuck in the past, harboring deep-set delusions that bright wallpaper will somehow lure tenants. There are some interesting ideas here about Rosa’s futile fixation on private property in a deeply transformed world that the ending unfortunately doesn’t follow through on. Still, the final shot feels perfectly aligned with The House’s off-center sensibilities.
Despite the independent natures of the three stories, The House plays out more like a feature film than discrete episodes, a fact bolstered by the decision to present it in one continuous video. The chapters follow both a chronological progression and an overarching narrative of moods. “Chapter 1” functions as an atmospheric piece that introduces you to a world where everything’s just a bit off. “Chapter 2” pushes that unease further, until “Chapter 3” punctures the built-up tension with a hopeful upswing.
For a central motif, the house itself is a relatively unremarkable three-story ivory building, a space of endless stairs topped by a small glass-encased lantern. This suits the storytelling needs though; characters in each of the chapters view the house as a chance to restore themselves, but they also place too much trust in it. Stripped of its contents and oscillating through time periods, the house relishes a certain anonymity that makes it a vessel rife for projection.
However, perhaps intrinsic to the episodes’ short runtimes, it’s difficult to emotionally connect to the characters. What The House lacks in emotional complexity, though, it makes up for in magnificent animation and handcrafted artistry. Joining the creative team is a veritable reunion of artists who worked on the stop-motion stalwart Fantastic Mr. Fox, including Tobias Fouracre and Chris Tichborne as animation directors, Alexandra Walker for production design, and Felicie Haymoz for character design. Their expertly miniature details, like a gilded statue complete with a small rat tail and a meticulously arranged vision board, add richness to the world. In one chapter, nearly every object is done in fabric, down to a quilted wine bottle.
Stop motion is a tedious, finicky art form unsuited for rapid commercial production, so there’s something thrilling about the glossy Netflix machine throwing its weight behind a niche project like this one. It’s not for everyone, but with a short runtime and idiosyncratic direction, The House tells a transportive series of fables for fans of the less-beaten path.
The House premieres Friday, January 14th on Netflix.
Annie Lyons is a culture writer from Austin, Texas, who loves all things coming-of-age and romantic comedy. You can find her on Twitter @anniexlyons probably debating another Moonstruck rewatch.
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