“The House” may be the most delightfully strange project Netflix has ever put its money behind.
They’re calling this Nexus Studios stop-motion animated tale a darker-than-dark “comedy series,” but don’t you believe it. It’s a warped anthology, with three separate directing teams, one for each chapter. Irish playwright Enda Walsh scripted the macabre and whimsical “House,” which plays as a movie, 98 minutes of the odd history of a British home of mysterious origins.
It begins with “And heard within, a lie is spun,” a Dickensian tale of how the house was built. The growing country family of Raymond (voiced by Matthew Goode) and Penelope (Claudie Blakely) have just enough time to absorb the insults of his snobby visiting relatives (Miranda Richardson voices one) at his and Penny’s modest adobe when a mysterious benefactor offers to build them a new house on a nearby hill.
Raymond can put down the bottle and give his family the life they deserve, and Penny has a new sewing machine to keep her busy. But little Mabel (Mia Goth) and toddler Isobel see workmen and others, hiding behind the scenes. They hear the weeping of the benefactor’s factotum, Mr. Thomas (Mark Heap). They recognize the peril, the “trap” this house is, before their parents.
In “Then lost is truth that can’t be won,” a new owner/developer (voiced by Jarvis Cocker) has renovated the place on the cheap in the present day, and is scrambling to flip the house — it’s now surrounded by the city — the day of its “open house.”
The developer is a mouse, as are the many visitors to that open house. But they’d all be more impressed if he could keep other vermin — insects — at bay.
And in “Listen again and seek the sun,” in the future, the land around the house is flooded — climate change? The latest owner, the talking cat Rosa (Susan Wokoma) has subdivided the ancient pile into studio apartments, and she too is renovating it. But her tenants Jen and Elias (Helena Bonham Carter and Will Sharpe) only pay in barter — fish he catches, “crystals” she consults.
Perhaps a visiting hippy handyman friend (Paul Kaye) of crystal-loving Jen is the answer to Rosa’s prayers. Or not.
The animation, which begins with felt doll-like “people,” yarn-covered trees and includes creative uses of wool and cotton (simulating fire in a fireplace), meshes together brilliantly. Doll “people” give way to fuzzy rodents and then to fuzzier “Fantastic Mr. Fox” style cats, each chapter with similar production design, although the opening episode/act is largely set in sinister darkness.
The dialogue can be ominous or hilarious. Consider this pearl from Cosmos, the Tibetan hymn-chanting hippy “traveler” and house-repairer who sails up in a boat.
“There are never any ‘plans’ with me. There’s only moments snatched from the wind!” Cosmos isn’t into “invasive” work like plumbing. He wants to “nourish the soil of the house, enlighten its chakra!”
The picture opens creepy, transitions to icky-funny and finishes light and amusing, with all the stories seated neatly on one big theme — a house is a “trap.” Whatever Raymond & Family gain from moving up, the demands the place makes and the closing-off means of escaping it hardly make it worth it.
Later owners just confirm that prognosis.
I was spooked and tickled and nodding in recognition of a “dream house’s” hidden nightmares, the cash-sucking burden of needing a quick and sloppy refit and re-sale and the bigger one of renting to deadbeat tenants.
If they’d presented this as a movie, it could have been an Oscar contender. The best thing about labeling “The House” a series is the prospect that we’ve just caught Season One of something extraordinary and wonderful.
Rating: TV-MA, animated gore, profanity
Cast: The voices of Helena Bonham Carter, Matthew Goode, Susan Wokoma, Jarvis Cocker, Will Sharpe, Paul Kaye, Mia Goth and Miranda Richardson.
Credits: Directed by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels, Niki Lindroth van Bahr and Paloma Baeza, scripted by Edna Walsh. A Nexus Studios film for Netflix release.
Running time: 1:38 (a tale told in three chapters of @:33 minutes each.