Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.
It's kind of funny. People always talk about how the Disney princes don't have names (even though almost all of them do), yet in Sleeping Beauty it is the princess whose name many people can't seem to remember. It's Aurora. That is, she was named Aurora by her parents when she was born--and the fairies called her Briar Rose when they were raising her in hiding from Maleficent. And the prince's name is Philip--a name that is mentioned many, many times throughout the movie.
Here is one of the big differences in 1959's Sleeping Beauty versus the precious Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella: there was a real and successful effort to also characterize the prince. Prince Philip has scenes on his own without Aurora there, and he has a big part to play in the story. He doesn't just show up when he's needed; he's there at different stages, doing different things. I'm here to talk about Aurora right now, but it bears noting that in this film both the prince and princess have fairly equal focus.
Princess, did I say? Yes, Aurora is already a princess even without marrying Philip. This is, of course, unlike Cinderella and even somewhat unlike Snow White--because Snow White is a princess whose stepmother is not allowing her to live like a princess (she's kind of "dethroned"). Aurora is a princess who doesn't know she's a princess, though. Her parents have entrusted her to the care of the fairies until she is old enough to be free of Maleficent's curse and can return home safely. So she's raised in a unique way, in a kind of bubble out in the woods.
Philip thinks she is a peasant girl (and notably tells his father that he wants to marry this peasant girl), and she must think so, as well. So she is quite used to walking around the woods barefoot and going out to pick berries. But she also has a more regal bearing than either of the princesses who came before her--and perhaps also any of the ones who would follow. She acts like royalty with her posture and her voice, so it is safe to guess that the fairies tried to raise her with a royal upbringing even if they were just in a cottage in the woods: they wanted her to be prepared when she finally did return home. I suppose to think of being royal (that is, a princess) as being more than a pretty dress and a crown but also your entire manner and way of thinking is a good thing.
Now, Aurora is not held by the same characteristics as Snow White and Cinderella. We never see her cleaning. Presumably, she does do work--but even in her small task of picking berries, she spends more time dancing around and talking to the birds about her dream than actually trying to fill her basket (granted, she could be taking her time because she knows the fairies just wanted to get her out of the house for a while). So she isn't a martyr princess or an overly done symbol of morality. She's just a person who happens to be a princess in disguise, beautiful, and a wonderful singer.
Ah, you see what I'm getting at there? Do you remember the beginning of the movie? The fairies bestow gifts on the baby princess. The first two gifts are the gift of beauty and the gift of song. Okay, gift of song is nice, but does this mean that we're to think Aurora would have been ugly without the gift of beauty and that physical beauty is meant to be something so important that, out of all the gifts a fairy could give, it's the one she would choose to give? To me, this is the worst part of the movie in terms of analyzing Aurora's character. I don't mind the princesses being beautiful because fictional characters often are. But I do mind physical beauty being treated in this manner.
But let's take this a little further and see if we can't overcome it. At what point after the gift scene is Aurora's beauty mentioned (except, of course, for the narrator mentioning that she "did indeed grow in grace and beauty")? I can't think of a single time. Philip is attracted first to hearing her sing--and since singing is something that comes from the heart, we can hardly complain about this. No one seems to relate to Aurora specifically because of her looks; they relate to her because of who she is or because of how they have come to know her. She stands on her own personality, that is. Her parents love her because she is their daughter, the fairies love her because they raised her, and Philip loves her because he felt a connection to her right away (they both talk about meeting each other "once upon a dream," which is to say that they feel like kindred spirits).
Yes, Aurora's story hinges on a man waking her up from an enchanted sleep. But do you know what? Philip went through a lot of danger (in a wonderful sequence of good versus evil, I might add) to save her, so why should we fault one person helping another person just because the person doing the helping happens to be a man and the person who needs help happens to be a woman? People can and should help one another; I have no problem with that. And Aurora was not in danger from any fault of her own; she was just the target for Maleficent's evil wrath. So it isn't as if Philip's helping Aurora in any way weakens Aurora: it's just evidence that she chose well by choosing him.
And after all, isn't that a good thing? If Aurora was comfortable enough in who she was to know how to choose someone to love that she knew would love her back in the right way, then that's a good lesson to have in a movie. In many ways, Sleeping Beauty is a combination of the previous two films: it's simultaneously a story of the triumph of good like Snow White is also also a love story like Cinderella is. So the main message that the film gives is love, many different kinds of love: patriotic, loyalty, parental, familial, and romantic. Aurora loves the three women who raised her, falls in love with the man she met while out picking berries, and will come to love her parents and the country that she will one day rule. There is this sense of responsibility that lingers at the back of it all: Aurora and the people around her show us that love isn't just something you receive, it's something you work for.
A true figure of royalty, Aurora is a fitting part of the Disney princess set.