The three good fairies are completely benign and agreeable, but they don’t seem nearly powerful enough to stop Maleficent or save the Princess, a fact that produces much of the movie’s suspense. They worry constantly about the Princess’s welfare; they bounce pleasantly when they walk; and their tiny wings, when in motion, resemble little clapping hands. Even in flight, the fairies perpetually perform gestures of affirmation. These elderly and safe female characters behave in ways that make them appear vaguely British. For example, they make a point of having tea, and they insist on politeness. Their quaintness increases when they swirl themselves into butterfly-size balls of light to avoid detection. Disney’s animators drew the fairies in such a way as to seem thoroughly unthreatening. Even tiny Merryweather’s feistiness plays comically, not seriously, since her impish impulsiveness never actually achieves anything. Whenever they need to, the other two fairies easily hold her back.
The names and two-toned colored dresses (warm/cool) of the fairies further suggest the nature of their characters. Flora refers to either the Roman Goddess of Flowers or any general plant life, and her pink dress may remind us of a fragrant blooming rose. Fauna, in green, similarly refers to either the Roman Goddess of Animals or any general animal life. Her color may remind us of the lush healthy forest, free open spaces, and clear, crisp air. Merryweather’s name can be broken down into just what it sounds like—good weather, which translates into positive omens. The happy spells of the fairies always rhyme. Though they occasionally bicker good-naturedly, they’re selfless when it counts. True happiness comes to them only if true happiness comes to the princess.
Nothing happens to turn Maleficent evil. No back story is offered or hinted at to explain her malevolence—she has just simply always been evil. Since she has no past, there are no grounds for any sympathy for her. In the logic of the fairy tale, she exists to define the complete opposite of the good characters, Aurora, Phillip, and the fairies. Therefore, her motivations never change. Her experience does not follow an arc or lead to change. She shows up wanting to do hurtful things, and she dies wanting to do hurtful things. Her character is drawn so ominously that there is never any question whose side the audience should be on. Solitary, angular, and horned, Maleficent speaks in a deep, theatrically harsh voice and deploys a bitter, jealous wit to ensure that she appears completely without the capability to love or to be loved.
The film bestows on her the skill of creative spell-casting in order to present challenges for the good characters to overcome. She proclaims death to Aurora, but Merryweather skillfully changes that to a deep sleep. She casts a forest of thorny branches in front of Prince Phillip after he escapes from her castle, but the good fairies equip him with the power to slice through it. Finally, her transformation into a giant dragon makes her so threatening, so unfairly dominant, that there’s no question she deserves death, right then and there.
Though Aurora/Rose makes few appearances in the film, the viewer can be sure of one thing: She holds steadfastly to one dream, the dream of true love. She exists more as a concept than as a complex character. The filmmakers intend for her to embody the ideal woman. No amount of hiding in peasants’ clothes can change her nobility and goodness. Typically, the main character of a film appears for much of the screen time and undergoes changes or rises above challenges to achieve a happy ending. In Sleeping Beauty, however, Aurora’s unchangeable nature is exactly the point. She’s pure, innocent, and good from the start, and her stalwart attachment to her beliefs guarantees her a happy ending.
Flora and Fauna give her the gifts of beauty and song, but Aurora/Rose also has other characteristics. Most significantly, she’s passive. She wishes and dreams, but she can’t take much action, largely because she’s asleep for much of the story. This passivity is so comprehensive that after Prince Phillip awakens her, she doesn’t say anything for the rest of the film. The director’s intention seems to be to create a distant, iconic status for Aurora/Rose so that she appears ideal, something to be admired from afar.
According to the logic of Disney’s film, Phillip represents a young girl’s ideal man. He’s strong, handsome, sensitive, funny, utterly faithful, and completely unrealistic. He’s Aurora’s perfect match because they both believe in the same concepts: love at first sight, marriage after one dance, a happy ever after. By believing so wholeheartedly in these concepts, he carries the power to break Maleficent’s curse with one kiss. Just like Aurora, Phillip doesn’t change in the film, although he is shown as a young boy, when he’s betrothed to Aurora. Therefore, he’s a few years older than she is and presumably a little bit wiser and more knowledgeable. The age difference becomes crucial to the creation of their wedding plans, because the passive Aurora can safely leave decisions and important concerns to the older, wiser man. The animators create Phillip so that the audience can have complete faith in him. He’ll always do the right thing, according to the moral rightness of this particular fairy tale. It’s so easy to figure out what he’ll do, however, that we can predict it. Phillip presents no big surprises. Though Aurora and Phillip seemingly defy the wishes of their elders (the fairies and Hubert), at the end they are filial, deferential children who assume their rightful place.