The Birds Upstairs

By Christopher Jarvis | Animation
An aristocratic bird couple gets frustrated trying to bear children in the early nineteenth century.

Edward and Henrietta are skeletons of birds. They are also husband and wife: an aristocratic couple living in luxury in nineteenth-century London. They are also trying to have a child together, but somehow cannot accomplish the deed.

Night after night, they try to conceive, but the continued futility of the endeavor begins to wear away at the affection between the couple. Edward is driven to drink, leaving Henrietta alone in her grief.

One lonely night, she makes a wish for a miracle… which she gets, and which proves an “uncertain blessing” for the already challenged pair.

Writer and director Christpher Jarvis has fashioned an visually ornate and engaging short animated drama about marriage, couplehood and family, and how exactly those bonds are forged and maintained.

The most immediately striking aspect of the film are the stop-motion animation and visuals and the rich, sumptuous production design, which gives the story the feel of both a fairy tale and a classically structured study of society from an author like Edith Wharton or Emile Zola.

As represented by the almost overwhelmingly grand sets and surroundings, the social context of the bird couple shapes the tenor of their interactions as a family. But like a fairy tale, the narrative beats are both mythic and even mystical in scope, making the couple’s actions — and the consequences of them — both strangely magical and uncanny at once.

“The Birds Upstairs” — nominated for a Student Academy Award in 2011 — is both a technical marvel and a haunting fable about family and legacy. The unusual characters and mannered pace of the tale may seem of a world and time past, but the emotional dilemma and heartbreak are as understandable and relatable as they are today — and as heartbreaking and poignant as ever.

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