Regardless of what Walt actually did first, the Disney animation brand quickly became synonymous with innovation. Many of Walt's follow up animated feature films would use new styles and techniques in animation, creating visuals too difficult to create with live action at the time.
During the 1940s, the studio quickly petered out, creating package films containing extended shorts or even two shorter subjects packaged together as a feature film. It was not until Cinderella in 1950 that the studio clearly went back on track with animated films that delighted audiences and critics and were financially successful. If Cinderella had flopped, Disney would have been pressured to close.
Disney animated films became a staple during the 1950s with a new film every few years, but the Disney company began branching out into television and live action film. Walt wanted to tell stories, and explored several avenues to do them. So after his death in the 60s, the animated features by Disney clearly began to lose their way. There were some fun ideas, such as an all-animal cast for Robin Hood, or a retelling of Oliver Twist now told through modern stray animals in New York City. But it was becoming clear that these films weren't doing that well compared to other fare and Disney was even considering closing the animation department and moved them off the lot.
The story was very different from its source material, in which the mermaid kills herself when she fails to make the Prince fall in love with her. In this case, Disney needed something that would resound with audiences and draw them into wonder and an ending that ended tragically for our main character simply wouldn't do. Lyricist Howard Ashman was instrumental in reinventing the story as a Broadway show. The movie was a big hit for Disney, reinvigorating Disney animation, setting off an ongoing series of annual animated films (broken only in 2006 so far).
Disney's next animated feature would be the less than warmly received The Rescuers Down Under, but the big follow up to The Little Mermaid would be Beauty and the Beast, also envisioned in a similar vein and recently reissued to Blu-Ray and digital streaming. It also differed from its original source, creating a more streamlined version of the story.
A number of people criticize Disney's Beauty and the Beast for romanticizing Stockholm Syndrome, which has a prisoner learn to love their captor because there's no one else around. But I must respectfully disagree. Belle is not easily swayed, looking beyond outer appearances. She rejects suitor/villain Gaston despite his attractive appearance because she recognizes he's selfish and conceited. She chooses to return to the castle with the Beast even though he yelled at her and nearly struck her because she begins to realize there's something more to him as he fights off the wolves rather than trying to recapture her. (Some fans even interpret this as a suicide attempt by the Beast.) As time goes on, Belle and the Beast interact with each other, begin reading, and finally, when she finds out her father is lost trying to rescue her from the Beast, the Beast lets her go. (The original story had the Beast allow her to take a visit that she overstays.) The story is about how the Beast suddenly stops devolving into a monster and begins to change into a human again inside before the curse on him is finally broken and he regains his human form. Belle has simply remained true to who she is, not realizing that the Beast is her Prince Charming until "chapter three" (the third act of the story).
These films issued in what is called the Disney Renaissance, and while it continued with The Lion King, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and (arguably) other films, these first three certainly have some shared elements between them that make the three work as a whole.
The most prominent characters in all three films are the heroines (or hero, in the case of Aladdin), their love interests and the villains. The heroines of all three movies are what push their own story. Ariel the Little Mermaid boldly investigates the Surface World and later bargains to be with Eric. Belle goes to find her missing father herself and volunteers to stay imprisoned in his place, and later decides to warn the Beast when Gaston goes to attack the castle. Jasmine is dissatisfied with simply being a princess to be married off to a rich prince and sneaks out of the palace to live like a normal person and later even questions the boy she did fall for when he reappears as a prince.
Similarly, the heroes of the movies are no slouches. Eric defeats Ursula. The Beast is the one who has to learn to love Belle, defending her and his home, even making the choice to let Gaston live, telling him simply to leave. Aladdin (of course, being the title character) actively defends Jasmine, then carefully makes his way through the Cave of Wonders before becoming a prince, wooing Jasmine and finally giving up his dream to live in a palace simply to save Agrabah from Jafar and fulfilling his promise to the Genie.
Another element to the three films are sidekicks, and even the villains have them. Flounder the fish, Sebastian the Jamaican crab and Skuttle the seagull all assist Ariel, while Eric has his dog Max and Ursula is assisted by two eels, Flotsam and Jetsam. The Beast and Belle are assisted by people transformed into objects, most prominently Lumiere the candelabra, Cogsworth the clock, Mrs. Potts the teapot and Chip the teacup, Belle's father Maurice has Phillipe the horse and Gaston has his buffoon friend Lefou. Aladdin has Abu the monkey, the mute magic carpet, the wisecracking and flamboyant Genie (voiced by Robin Williams), Jasmine has Rajah the tiger and Jafar has Iago the parrot (voiced by Gilbert Gottfried, the character would become an ally of Aladdin in later spinoffs).
Despite the similarities, each film has its own identity and story. Many of the similarities are based on previous Disney films, where Snow White had the Dwarfs and her animal friends, Cinderella had her helpful mice, and Aurora had the three good fairies looking out for her. In the terms of love interests, these films improve on the former by actually fleshing out Eric, the Beast and Jasmine, while we only got a brief appearance by Snow White's prince, just a few glimpses and a dance with Cinderella's prince, while Prince Philip had more of an active presence than Aurora. But when it came to music, few Disney movies before or after these three integrated it so well. Frozen comes pretty close, though.
These three films were certainly among my favorites as a child, although now that I realize Howard Ashman was gay and so am I, I do have to wonder if it was more than great songs, good storytelling and dazzling animation that appealed to me. Maybe the themes in each of people wanting and then earning more than what their lot in life gave them was a wish fulfillment parable. Some even interpret the Beast's devolving into a monster as a parable for Ashman's battle with AIDS. Although these movies do not feature openly queer characters (a fair number of characters are given no romantic interests at all, so who can say?) and the pairings are all heterosexual, none of them feature people falling in love the way tradition suggests. Ariel's marriage bridges two species, the enchanted Prince and Jasmine find their love interests in common people. Belle recognizes the humanity in someone who doesn't appear human. Ursula was inspired by drag queen Divine, the Wardrobe attacks and puts an attacking villager in drag (his rejection of being dressed as a female causes him to scream and run away), and the Genie adopts a few female personas, and even flirts with Aladdin during the song "Friend Like Me." ("I'm on the job, you big nabob!")