On the Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty (1959), animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were assigned to the three good fairies: Flora, Fauna and Merryweather.
The fairies’ names subtly indicated that they were spirits of nature and therefore benevolent. Flora was to have had dominion over plants. Fauna was to have had dominion over the animals. Merryweather would control the climate. An early concept sketch had her with a little parasol umbrella for inclement weather that seemed to plague her despite her name.
Walt ultimately decided not to go in that direction because he felt that while it might provide some humorous situations that it would ultimately distract the audience from what he felt was the real focus of the story.
“At one point, Walt wanted the three fairies to all be alike, sort of like Huey, Dewey and Louie,” remembered Ollie Johnston. “And we [Thomas and Johnson] thought ‘that’s not going to be any fun’. So we started figuring the other way and worked on how we could develop them into special personalities.
“I think it made the picture richer to have them that way. Little Merryweather was a feisty little thing and got upset real easily. Fauna was always trying to keep peace between Flora and Merryweather. Flora was not what you would call an appointed leader. She just sort of automatically became the leader because she had all the best ideas. All in all, the three of them formed a happy team.”
At one point they had fairy-like antennae. It was story artist Don DaGradi who helped set the final design for the characters when he observed that little old ladies wore their hats directly on top of their heads and he created some winsome sketches of the three fairies.
Shortly before the release of the film, Thomas talked extensively with writer Bob Thomas who was preparing the book Walt Disney The Art of Animation (1958) about the making of Sleeping Beauty and interviewed many people for background information.
“Ollie and I are about the only guys around here who think little old ladies can be funny. The fairies started with the original story crew of Ted Sears, Winston Hibler and Bill Peet.
“The various fairytales had any number of fairies in the Sleeping Beauty story, up to 13. The story boys settled on three. Three characters are easy to work with in animation, and Walt likes combinations of three. They have proven successful in the past.
“The actions of the three were nailed down by the original story crew and the storyboard team of Ed Penner and Joe Rinaldi. It was up to Ollie and me to make the fairies come alive. Character is never established until the pencil lines are put on paper by the animator. And it’s only then character develops.
“So I started studying old ladies. I spent hours in the grocery store, usually at the dog food counter. You see lots of them at the dog food counter. I didn’t mind spending the time. I like old ladies.
“A project like this affects your thinking after a while. Once at a wedding reception, I found myself studying all the older women there. It was a worthwhile experience. I picked up some excellent pointers on necks, ears, hairdos, and style of dressing.
“I had a babysitter who was a good fat type. I studied her so intently I guess she got self-conscious. She took off forty pounds and I lost a model.
“When I was on vacation in Colorado one summer, I found what I thought was a perfect type. She moved just beautifully. But every time I tried to take movies of her, she froze. It was very discouraging. I went back there, the next summer, but the same thing happened.
“Bit by bit, I learned about little old ladies and how they move. There are two kinds, actually. One kind is all humped over. The other stands straight and erect. This is the more interesting type.
“I found that when old ladies move, they bounce like mechanical toys. They paddle, paddle on their way. They stand straight and their arm movements are jerky. Their hands fly out from the body. The reason for all this is that they’re afraid to get off-balance, afraid they will fall over.
“We had to find out everything we could about the three fairies. It’s the same thing we do with every character. If we had a Sneezy in Snow White, we had to know how he ate his food, combed his hair, blew his nose. Everything. You can’t draw what you don’t know.
“For the fairies, we tried all kinds of costumes. We looked in costume books for medieval attire. We tried Scandinavian versions, German types and many more.
“We studied people in the studio, men as well as women. We looked at hundreds of actresses, trying to find the perfect types. None of them was perfect.
“But bit by bit, the fairies began to take shape. One became dominant—Flora—and the other two were tagalongs. We tried to make them positive and aggressive. They were do-gooders, but not the retiring kind, not the Carrie Nation type. They had plenty of spunk.
“The conception really took shape when Don DaGradi came up with sketches of the three fairies. They were exactly what we had been looking for. After that, Tom Oreb made model sheets of the fairies in various costumes and poses, showing proportions and relative size. These are used for reference by the animators.
“The voices were found for Flora, Fauna and Merryweather and the dialogue was recorded. Then the work of animation really began.”
With the push to promote the Disney fairies franchise these days, it is a shame that Flora, Fauna and Merryweather (along with the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio and the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella) seemed to have been completely forgotten. It also bothers me that Tiger Lilly, a true Indian princess unlike Pocahontas, is not part of the Disney Princess brand.
The characters did enjoy other adventures in the comic books prepared by Western Publishing and distributed by Dell in the 1950s and 1960s.