Disney’s classics have been well-loved for years, but as Disney princesses continue to change over time and become more active characters in their own films, discussion surrounding princesses in earlier films has become more critical. From Snow White naively taking a bite of a suspicious apple to Cinderella’s passivity in waiting to be rescued, the choices that these princesses make, or do not make, have been called into question, especially compared to more active and recent Disney princesses. However, there is typically more to these fairy tales than meets the eye. And no Disney princess movie demonstrates this type of storytelling better than Sleeping Beauty.
Despite being the focus of the fairy tale, the titular character is given the least amount of screen time among the main cast; she is on-screen for only about 18 minutes out of an 85-minute runtime and speaks her final line of dialogue halfway through. Despite having one of the most sinister villains in Disney’s large cast of baddies, Aurora (Mary Costa) never truly comes face to face with Maleficent (Eleanor Audley), and she has no hand in her own rescue.
Taking valuable screen time and dialogue away from the protagonist of the story is a strange choice to make – if Princess Aurora is the protagonist, that is. Despite being the center of the story, Aurora doesn’t go through much of a character arc. The biggest change is meeting her true love in the forest and agreeing to meet with him again that night, only to realize that she is a princess and is forbidden to be with him. It’s even unclear whether Aurora finds out by the end of the movie that the man she met “once upon a dream” is actually her betrothed, Prince Philip (Bill Shirley). Very little time is dedicated to Aurora herself, making her a stagnant character.
While Aurora sleeps the movie away, Prince Philip is a far more action-based character. After getting to know a peasant girl in the forest and falling in love with her (admittedly quickly), he joyfully stands up to his father and breaks his engagement to be with the girl of his dreams. Following his abduction by Maleficent, he fights off hordes of her devil-like underlings, races back to the thorny castle grounds to rescue his true love, and fights Maleficent in her dragon form, making the climax of the film exciting and all the more satisfying when his kiss wakes the sleeping beauty. But despite Philip being an active character in contrast to Aurora’s passivity, all of his fights and revelations are only outward ones. Philip himself never really changes much.
A comparison between Aurora and Philip’s dynamic and that of the three fairies is extremely telling. Flora (Verna Felton), Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen), and Merryweather (Barbara Luddy) are not obvious choices for protagonists, especially considering that the fairy/fairy godmother characters usually serve supportive roles. And that’s the beauty of Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather’s role in the film: they learn how best to support the children that they have chosen to protect.
At the beginning of the film, Flora gives baby Aurora the gift of beauty and Fauna gives her the gift of song, which are both wonderful blessings but are only small parts of Aurora’s personality. Merryweather’s initial gift is unknown, as she is interrupted by Maleficent and her curse, so she uses her unspoken gift to bless Aurora by enchanting a loophole into Maleficent’s spell. The fairies mean well, and they do their best to protect Aurora, even going so far as to devise the plan to hide the young princess away until her sixteenth birthday. Their day begins with giving a few small and wonderful gifts to the new princess and ends with them dedicating sixteen years of their lives to raising the girl as their own. The fairies’ dedication to Aurora is strong, and it only grows as Aurora does.
Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather have been deciding what is best for Aurora all her life, and while they do mean well, they sometimes get it wrong. Their constant bickering with each other, as well as their incompetence while doing everyday tasks without the use of their magic, humanizes them and reveals that they are flawed and imperfect magical beings and not the all-knowing, wise motherly creatures that fairy tales often use (see Cinderella). Their decision to keep Aurora in the dark about her identity only to overwhelm her with it all at once is ill-conceived and not executed well. Despite this, they learn from their mistakes.
When Maleficent tricks Aurora into activating the curse, the fairies have no choice but to switch from playing supportive roles in Aurora’s life to helping Philip wake her. When he is captured by Maleficent, the three fairies are the ones to sneak in and break him out, despite being too terrified to go anywhere near Maleficent’s hideout for the entire story up to this point. While Philip does most of the fighting, the fairies give him the sword and shield to do so and assist him in what little ways they can. While Philip throws the sword that kills Maleficent in her dragon form, Flora is the one who enchants it with accuracy, demonstrating that the fairies are now better at helping their wards fight their own battles.
This comfort in the supportive roles they’ve learned how to play suits the three fairies well. While Aurora and Philip dance the night away together, they watch from the balcony, satisfied with a job well done but crying nonetheless because they care so much about their wards. They have successfully completed their shared character arc of learning how to be good protectors. Even when Flora and Merryweather’s bickering continues from the sidelines, they are quieter about their disagreements and Aurora doesn’t seem to be fazed in the least when her gown changes colors repeatedly from pink to blue.
In the context of having a protagonist, a deuteragonist, and a tritagonist, Sleeping Beauty’s story makes much more sense. The reason why the main character is asleep for half the runtime is that neither she, nor her true love, are the main characters after all. The real protagonists are actually Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. They are the ones who go through steady character arcs that span the entire movie. They, along with Prince Philip, defeat Maleficent in the end, and they are the focus for most of the runtime. The fairies are the ones who learn and change the most, and they are the driving force behind the battle against Maleficent. Sleeping Beauty may be named after Aurora, but this is Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather’s story.
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