Sleeping Beauty was Disney’s return to the fairytale formula that had served him so well just a few years before with Cinderella and jump-started animated cinema with Snow White. Once again there are the usual fairytale trappings: a princess, a prince, magic, etc. But the story of Sleeping Beauty presents a problem for a movie retelling; watching the title character sleep does not make for a compelling movie. The story also involves a large time gap that needs to be bridged, between the princess being cursed and the curse being fulfilled. Disney solved this problem by shifting focus to more of the characters, so the titular character wasn’t carrying the entire film. We see more of the Kings and the Prince, but the real stars are the fairies.
Flora, Fauna and Merryweather provide a stable group of character for the movie to focus on. They are there at the beginning, providing a crucial role of bestowing their gifts on Aurora, most notably altering Maleficent’s curse. They also conceive and initiate the plan to keep Aurora hidden until after her 16th birthday. Though they seem to serve primarily as comic relief, they are actually the ones driving the story forward.
Aurora has her brief period of action as she meets the prince, falls in love, finds out she’s a princess and then fulfils the curse and falls asleep. But from there the focus is fully back on the fairies as they realize Prince Phillip’s kiss will break the curse and mount a rescue. Then do all the heavy lifting as he escapes and slays Maleficent. Ultimately Prince Phillip does little more than act as a warm body to hold the magical weapons they conjure up. Even the death blow against Maleficent in dragon form is more Flora casting a spell on the sword, than the actual flinging of the sword. The only reason he’s useful at all is the curse-breaking kiss.
But even as the action follows the fairies, they maintain the feel of side characters, operating just off to the side of the Prince and Princess; giving the feeling the movie is still more about them. The way they are used in this movie in general demonstrates how a story can still be made to work by still providing interesting characters to support it, even if they’re not the characters that are expected. The fairies are what hold this movie together. Without them it would be a disconnected series of scenes and lacking in much of the depth and humor.