Joe Grant

by Sheila Hagen, staff writer

Joe Grant, legendary Disney storyman and artist, passed away last Friday on May 6 at the age of 96. Grant's imprint can be found on many of the early Disney animated features as well as recent releases, as his career with Disney ultimately spanned over seven decades.

Joe Grant, member of Walt Disney's inner circle, artist and storyman extraordinaire.

Grant was one of those rare individuals who helped shape the development of animation in the beginning, yet still had an active hand in shaping the newest generation of animation storytelling and techniques today. In fact, Grant is the only Disney artist to have worked on both versions of Fantasia.

Born in New York in 1908, his family moved while he was young to Los Angeles, California. Grant's father, who worked as an art editor at a local newspaper, allowed Grant to tag along with him to the newsroom, where Grant learned how to draw.

Grant found work in the early 1930s drawing caricatures for the now-defunct newspaper, the Los Angeles Record, as well as for famed restaurants of the time, Lindy's and Sardi's. Those caricatures brought him to the attention of Walt Disney, who hired Grant to provide caricatures for the early cartoons, “Parade of the Award Nominees” and “Mickey's Gala Premiere.”

Grant's celebrity caricatures in “Mickey's Gala Premiere.” Image source PRNewsFoto.

Within a few years, Grant found full-time work at the Disney studios, providing animation initially for “Who Killed Cock Robin,” then was assigned to design the Queen/Witch for the 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

While Snow White was still in production, Disney charged Grant with creating and heading up the newly formed Character Model Department, where initial sketches and designs of proposed new characters were created. No character design was considered “official” until Grant approved it.

Grant personally worked on story and/or character design for “Thru The Mirror,” Pinocchio, and Fantasia. On Fantasia, Grant worked closely with his longtime collaborator, Dick Huemer, and the famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, to choose the music heard in the feature. In a recent interview with online magazine Animation World Magazine, he recounted that, “We played and played music, just short of lunacy… It was really quite difficult. It worked back and forth. Either something was suggested by the drawings, or by the music itself. But, there's always a good story in a good piece of music.”

Grant working with Walt Disney on story design. Image source PRNewsFoto.

Grant co-wrote and supervised the story elements for Dumbo, as well as character and/or story design for later features Make Mine Music, Saludos Amigos, Alice in Wonderland, and Lady & The Tramp. In fact, Grant and his wife came up with the inspiration to base a story on a springer spaniel named “Lady.” Grant also provided character and story design for the Baby Weems segment in the Reluctant Dragon feature, in which the Baby Weems character was said to be based on Grant's own daughter, Carol.

Grant also provided story and design for various wartime animation pieces, most notably “Der Fuehrer's Face,” “Education for Death,” and “Reason and Emotion.” An interview with Grant talking on this subject can be viewed on the 2004 Walt Disney Treasures DVD release, On The Front Lines.

With the advent of World War II, the Character Model Department was disbanded due to economic pressures, and Grant left to pursue other interests, running both a ceramics studio and a successful greeting cards business.

Forty years later, Grant received a call from Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1989 asking if he'd like to work as a consultant on an upcoming project, Beauty and the Beast, thus beginning his second stint at the Disney studios, which continued until his death.

As Creative Director at WDFA, Grant enthusiastically contributed concepts, design, story ideas, and gags for Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules, helping to usher in what is known as Disney's second golden age of animation. He came up with the ideas for both the little insect character “Cri-Kee” in Mulan, and the inspired gag of a flamingo playing with yo-yos in Fantasia 2000.

As elder statesman at WDFA during the 1990s and later, Grant could always be counted on to provide advice and help to younger animators. Grant was known for his keen interest in new animation techniques and the future of animation in general as animation moved from 2-D techniques to the computer-based world of 3-D animation. One of his last projects, the animated short subject “Lorenzo” (based on his story of a cat whose tail came to life) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Short Animated Film in 2005.

Grant was equally revered as well, being well-respected for his input at various meetings and story sessions, even providing the title name for Pixar's Monsters, Inc. As part of Pixar's film, A Bug's Life, the cookie box circus wagon was named after him.

Pixar's Tribute to Joe Grant as seen in A Bug's Life.

Named a Disney Legend in 1992, Grant also was the recipient of the National Cartoonists Society Ruben Award in 1996 and an Annie Award from the International Animated Film Society (ASIFA), as well as many other awards and retrospectives of his art. More than 70 of his caricatures can be seen at the Smithsonian.

With his enthusiasm for life and his work, Grant continued drawing and designing until his death, caused by a heart attack while sketching away at his drawing board at home.

Grant's influence is most evident in the detailed and life-like characters of the early Disney movies of the 1930s and in the highly successful Disney animation features of the 1990s. Hopefully his guidance, teachings, and attention to detail will influence future generations of animators and moviemakers so that the famed Disney art of animation will not pass away with him.

Grant is survived by his two daughters, Carol Eve Grubb and Jennifer Jean Grant Castrup, as well as several grandchildren. His wife of 70 years, Jennie, passed away in 1991.

Funeral services will be held on Saturday, May 14 at 9:00 a.m. at the Church of the Recessional at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA, 361 South Raymond Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91105.