Not a lot of artists who have worked at Walt Disney Animation Studios can say they have worked on a film from the studio’s Golden Age like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as well as a modern animated film like Up, but Joe Grant was a rare person. He was hired by Walt Disney in the 1930s and he has worked on many of their animated films from Snow White to Dumbo to Beauty and the Beast to The Lion King all the way until his death in 2005.
Born in New York City, New York in 1908, Grant was fascinated with drawings from a young age since his father was the art director for William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers. Grant also wanted to pursue art, though his family tried to pursuade him from doing so because it was seen as a futile career pursuit, but it was too late. Grant was already captivated by the “magic” of the drawing.
Grant’s passion eventually brought him to L.A. where he attended Chouinard Art Institute (the precursor to CalArts) and became a caricaturist at the Los Angeles Record. Walt Disney saw how stylized and whimsical Grant’s caricatures were and he hired Grant to draw celebrity caricatures for the Mickey Mouse cartoon Mickey’s Gala Premiere (1933), later asking Grant to work at the Disney studio full time to which Grant enthusiastically said yes.
At Disney, Grant was a character designer as well as a story man (plot and dialogue developer), working on Silly Symphonies like Three Little Pigs (1933) and Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935) and the Disney feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) where he provided concept art and designed the Evil Queen in her hag form. Grant’s work on Snow White inspired Walt to create the character model department which Grant headed until the late 1940s.
Grant also helped design and develop Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941), collaborated with Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski and Dick Huemer on Fantasia (1940) helping select music and develop story ideas for the film’s animated segments, wrote the “Baby Weems” sequence from The Reluctant Dragon (1941) and provided story ideas for Saludos Amigos (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944) and Alice in Wonderland (1951) as well as helping write and direct some of Disney’s best wartime shorts Reason and Emotion, Education for Death and the Donald Duck cartoon Der Feuhrer’s Face, all released in 1943. But one of Grant’s most significant contributions to Disney in this period was that he created the concept of a cocker spaniel falling in love with a street mutt which ultimately became the feature film Lady and the Tramp (1955).
Grant left Disney in 1949 to start his own graphic design firm and run a ceramics and greeting card business but he eventually returned to Disney Animation decades later in the Katzenberg and Eisner era. Since 1989, Grant had contributed to the Disney Renaissance by helping develop the worlds and characters of Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997) and Tarzan (1999) as well as contribute to the stories of Pocahontas and Mulan (1998). Grant also gave Eric Goldberg the idea for the Carnival of the Animals segment of Fantasia 2000 (1999) when he drew the concept for an ostrich playing with a yo-yo, with the final concept ultimately featuring flamingos.
His final contributions to Disney were being a visual development artist on Treasure Planet (2002) and Home on the Range (2004) and creating the concept for the animated short Lorenzo (2004), an imaginative film about a cat who loses its tail which was directed by Mike Gabriel and was originally planned as a segment for a third Fantasia, but when that project got cancelled was instead released at the Florida Film Festival and ahead of the Touchstone film Raising Helen in theaters. He also made a significant contribution to Pixar when he suggested to Pete Docter that he change the name of his film from Hidden City to Monsters, Inc., a play on the title of the 1960s gangster film Murder, Inc. The name stuck and Pixar history was made.
Grant died at his drawing board in 2005. The 2005 Disney film Chicken Little and the 2009 Pixar film Up, both of which he was working on, are both dedicated to his memory. His creativity was invaluable and it made him an important player in two significant periods of Disney’s history.