‘The House’ Is an Unsettling Stop-Motion Anthology with Gorgeous Fairy Tale Precision

Told in three parts in three different worlds, this animated Netflix special is an impeccable, detailed collection that expertly balances nightmare and dark comedy.
THE HOUSE. David Peacock as Flemish Workers in THE HOUSE. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021
"The House"

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch ‘The House: Netflix

An anthology that works as a whole is a singular kind of thrill. Watching a collection of stories come together, while wildly different and only connected in tenuous ways, is incredibly satisfying when all of it feels of a piece. That’s certainly the case with “The House,” the new Netflix Special (by their description) that brings together three diverging stories.

Boasting different directors but the same writers, the segments feel distinct far beyond the fact that each of them are set in the same house during wildly changing eras. The first centers on a struggling family, gifted a lavish home by a mysterious benefactor. The final two forego humanity entirely, focusing on anthropomorphic main characters: a real estate-flipping rat and a feline landlord, respectively.

In its own thorny allegorical way, these portions of “The House” (rooms? floors?) are all portraits of loss. The children in the opening act watch their old cozy farmhouse and their old way of life give way to something more cavernous and cold. In Chapter II, eager to show off his extensive interior work, our intrepid rat redecorator soon finds that he’s not the only one dwelling inside the on-the-market property. And in the closing third, in a world where the ravages of time have taken its toll on the estate and pretty much everything surrounding it, Rosa (Susan Wokoma) is just trying to keep a dream alive.

All of these thematically linked stories are brought to life in exquisite detail by directors Emma de Swaef & Marc James Roels, Niki Lindroth von Bahr, and Paloma Baeza. There’s a richness and density to these stop-motion animated worlds. By virtue of the medium, characters move around these environments in a way that lets the story play out in a patient, building way. Some of these chapters are filled with mounting dread, while others are designed to puzzle. Regardless, each frame is packed with information, even after the spatial layout of the house becomes more familiar.

“The House” owes plenty to the sonic aspects of the story, too. An eccentric voice cast taps into the distinct spirit of each third. Mia Goth helps Mabel truly feel like a girl being robbed of her childhood in real time. Jarvis Cocker (this time voicing an animal in a project where non-humans are the norm) brings the perfect blend of timidness and frustration to the middle chapter, particularly during a disastrous open house. Long before the haze creeps in during that last segment, Wokoma adds a certain adrift feeling to Rosa, making the last narrative breakthrough of “The House” feel even more cathartic. Through it all, composer Gustavo Santaolalla builds a score that somehow has room for disco, throat singing, and the lyrical guitar melodies he’s most known for.

Still, there can’t be too much praise for the visual styling here, with an impeccable attention to the smallest facets of this house in all its forms. To explain why some particular sequences are so intricate would give away some of the biggest surprises in “The House.” But needless to say, there are some moments built around specific character design choices and movements that are both elegant and chilling to watch unfurl. Even the simplest, idle beats have a graceful touch to them: “The House” has the confidence and execution to turn the basic act of picking at blue painters tape while on a business call into something with its own charm.

Pair It With: It pairs most obviously with Mabel’s chapter, but Emily Carroll’s fantastic illustrated short story collection “Through the Woods” is a great companion piece for “The House.” The general air of “things are not as they seem” run throughout the five collected stories in “Through the Woods,” particularly in ways that hinge on a simple detail or a slight change of perception. For a taste, sample “His Face All Red,” which has a final panel that will stick with you for the rest of your days.

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