What distinguishes a house from a home? Some of the brightest emerging talents in stop-motion animation join forces to consider creature comforts in The House. Although billed as a mini-series on some channels, this Netflix flick is a brisk anthology feature. The House offers three chapters, each made by a different director or team. It showcases some of the most exciting new voices in independent animation. The three acts, which could stand independently but complement one another thematically, aesthetically, and playfully, build a three-story structure about the social and personal aspects of the dwellings in which we live. Each chapter lets the artists develop their signature aesthetic on grander canvases, but the work is cohesive. This visually stunning, thoughtful, and darkly funny anthology film is a must for anyone keeping the pulse of animation. It’s a thrill to see artists who’ve helmed award-winning shorts on the festival circuit take the next step.
The three chapters of The House build a storybook fable about the reassurance provided by warm, stable housing. But it’s also a humorous cautionary tale about the nightmares linked to home ownership. The moral of the story may simply be to rent.
The first chapter, directed by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels, features a family in the 1800s that receives an unusual proposal. One drunken night, Raymond (Matthew Goode) stumbles upon a developer. He agrees to move the family into a new custom-built home, so long as they bring nothing with them. It’s a golden ticket for a working class family aspiring for more. Raymond ships his wife Penelope (Claudie Blakely), daughter Morgan (Mia Goth), and baby to the new abode. It’s a grand mansion with spacious rooms, exquisite fixtures, and high-end furnishings. There are more cavernous rooms than they need, which speak to the architect’s seemingly insatiable drive for building.
Yet the intentions of the mysterious architect haunt the house. Morgan sees the cold and impersonal house literally shift shape before her eyes. As de Swaef and Roels imaginatively evoke a tale of being careful what one wishes for, their story somewhat sinisterly plays the family’s fate like a malleable dollhouse. While the opening act somewhat loses steam, their aesthetic favours chubby puppets with beady eyes, but the house itself is realistic and familiar. Their animation continues the playful twist they gave on human folly in shorts like Oh, Willy (2012), which won top prizes at festivals like Annecy and Ottawa. The first chapter of The House cautions audiences to beware the welcome mat, for a house is far more than its trimmings.
A Mouse House
If building a dream becomes a nightmare for the first dwellers, chapter two of The House envisions the mother of all pest problems. This work from Niki Lindroth Van Bar offers more of the personable critters that audiences saw in shorts like The Burden, which won a slew of prizes at festivals including TIFF. Her contribution to The House observes a plucky renovator (Jarvis Cocker) as he guts and refurbishes a home. It’s a huge undertaking with no expense spared. He toils away installing state of the art appliances, grand flooring, pricey carpets, and a fish tank. The kitchen is not a cookery, but a relaxation station. It’s also a haven for bugs, which become the least of his problems when selling the house.
The renovator, who should probably be identified as a mouse at this point, has guests who won’t leave. The film humorously turns the tables on one pest as he’s besieged by others. But the mouse has pesky habits of his own, including late night phone calls and an eye for cash-gouging perfectionism. People Mice like him are driving the market up, and The House lampoons the consequences of a market driven by greed and consumption. This act might be the darkest corner of The House, but it bridges the stories on either side. The film underscores a house’s role as a place of status and security, but one that can carry a hefty price.
The third chapter of The House takes audiences not to a grand manor, but to a crumbling rooming house. Every student and starving artist has encountered, but hopefully not lived at, one of these abodes before. Rosa (Susan Wokoma) is the landlord for a house in a dystopian future. A flood approaches, yet she still tends to her waterfront property. Her tenants, voiced by Elias (Will Sharpe) and (Helena Bonham Carter), are no-income bohemians. They pay their rent with fish and good karma, respectively. Like the renovator in the preceding story, though, Rosa fixates on order and details in the face of destruction.
Directed by Paloma Baeza, whose story of an encounter between bears Poles Apart won a BAFTA, delivers the pick of the litter in The House. Her cat characters are the most personable feats of the film’s critters. They have distinct personalities and styles. Yet while she humorously anthropomorphizes them, the cats’ disjointedness—they have joints where humans do—is part of their charm. This chapter boasts the strongest eye for detail of the three. It might be this author’s natural inclination for cat fancy, but The House ends strongly as this chapter invites comparison to Wes Anderson’s whimsical animated adventures.
This chapter of The House, moreover, brings the film to a warm conclusion as Rosa learns what makes a dwelling a home to each person. This personable fable invites a wider reflection on the ways in which “home” isn’t necessarily tied to any piece of land. It’s something that can be carried. It’s the people who make it so comforting. However, Baeza and Rosa also understand how a house affords a measure of stability. A house keeps a person grounded. The film is obviously best enjoyed in the comfort of one’s own home.
The House streams on Netflix beginning Jan. 14.