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‘The House’ offers everything Netflix has been missing in recent years

It’s been a while since a Netflix project surprised me.

“Squid Game” was good, as was the “Fear Street” trilogy. I’ve enjoyed a few of their properties over the past couple years, but the company has been practically throwing products at the wall and praying for something to stick.

Imagine my surprise when “The House” shot up my list and entered my top three animated movies ever.

“The House” is a creepy stop-motion anthology movie that centers on, of all things, a house. In Act One, directed by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels, a poor family living in a cottage is offered a new mansion for free, apparently with no strings attached. 

As the story progresses, the stakes become more clear. The parents grow increasingly distant from their children, and contractors wander the house making constant renovations.

In Act Two, directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, the house has come into the hands of a developer (a literal rat) who struggles to sell the house during a recession. No amount of shiny gadgets can hide the cockroach infestation though, and one couple at the first showing has no intention of leaving.

Act Three, with director Paloma Baeza, sees the house surrounded by water and inhabited by three cats. One cat, Rosa, has dreams of restoring the building to its former glory, but she’s short of money and has to rely on renting out rooms to continue her renovations. When her spiritual tenant Jen, voiced by the incomparable Helena Bonham-Carter, invites her Tibetan throat-singing boyfriend Cosmos, tensions rise.

Act Three was my favorite by far. Sure, part of my favoritism is because of Bonham-Carter, but it also sent me into an existential crisis, so that’s cool.

The first triumph of “The House” is the aesthetic. It’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” meets “Coraline,” with human characters made of felt instead of clay. It turns out that’s the one way to make stop-motion animation even more unsettling. Characters’ facial features occupy only the center of their face and humanoid rats move like bugs in a house that feels almost real.

“The House” offers a huge departure from the sterile animation that’s dominated the past decade. I’m a big Pixar fan, but each movie the studio releases feels one step more clinical in style than the last.

Netflix’s track record with animated movie acquisition so far seems likely to avoid that trend. “The House” joins the likes of the beautifully 2D animated (and partially black and white) “I Lost My Body” and the innovative 2D/3D combo “Klaus,” both released in 2019.

Not only do Netflix’s animated releases prove there’s still room for innovation and exploration of various artistic styles, but they prove films don’t have to be for kids just because they aren’t live-action.

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“The House” is decidedly not for children. With frequent scenes of men cowering in dark rooms, rats graphically crushing cockroaches beneath their fingers and the occasional profanity, it isn’t for all adults, either.

But what a journey those who choose to watch it will go on.

From its first frame until its last glorious shot, “The House” acts as a critique of consumerism. It’s a commentary on mental health and an allegory for death, loss and acceptance all in one. If another movie attempted to stuff itself with the meaning this one contains so effortlessly, I might accuse it of being the overly ambitious vanity project of a director hungry for an Oscar.

Not so here.

At the heart of “The House” is, well, heart. Each director knows exactly what story they want to tell, and everything from script to sound design works to support their visions.

Despite the off-putting plots, I found myself relating to characters in every act. Who hasn’t felt the struggle for parents’ attention or wrestled with a problem that doesn’t go away no matter how hard you try to cover it up?

And the third act? Apparently I relate to characters in denial. I don’t know what that says about me, but it definitely made me more invested than I otherwise would’ve been in four cats living in and renovating a house in the middle of an ocean.

It’s not a perfect film. I know that, but I couldn’t tell you what’s wrong with it, and I’ve been trying to come up with something for days.

Maybe more Helena Bonham-Carter next time around.

Rating: 9/10