The other day I was babysitting a young girl whose favorite Disney Princess is Sleeping Beauty. Often when we discuss the pros and cons of Disney or other versions of fairy tales, it's mostly adults speculating how a child perceives the story, so it was interesting to hear Christy's interactions.
Christy is already fascinated with the idea of marriage, and knows traditional stories well. She likes to pretend she's scared by the witch, and distressed at the thought of the curse of death, but is comforted by-"Who's going to save her? The prince will save her!" It's really not a bad thing for a prince to save someone who's in trouble, but I get the indignation against the idea that females are always either helpless beauties relying on the men, or evil villains. So I tried to play up the fact that really the rescue starts with Merryweather, reversing the spell from death to sleep, but Christy didn't really care about that. Indeed, Merryweather's contribution to the rescue is more subtle than a fight with a huge dragon and more likely to go over children's heads.
It bothered Christy that the fairies tell Briar Rose not to speak to strangers-"that's not nice!" and that they tried to take her away from Phillip. I tried to explain the fact that some strangers can be dangerous, and that they didn't know that the man she met in the woods happened to be Prince Phillip, but the facts of the story are set in her mind and I think it's hard for her to understand that the characters don't know everything that she knows, and that things could have turned out differently than they did in this particular story.
Does this version of Sleeping Beauty fit into a lot of stereotypes that can have negative influences on children if they're overexposed to such stereotypes? Yes. But even in a more politically correct story, the story makers can't control how each child perceives and understands, and some kids will misinterpret and misunderstand some of the storyline anyway. I would definitely show my kids the classic Disney movies, but engage in conversation about them and try to answer any questions honestly. It's still a fun movie, and in my opinion, hands down the best Disney movie in terms of visuals.