book review: Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Ranft And Joe Grant

by John Canemaker
(Disney Editions)

In "Two Guys Named Joe", his tenth book, animation scholar John Canemaker has produced an exceptional dual biography of two men who made their mark on the world of animation. They were a generation apart, yet they managed to briefly cross paths. Joe Grant was an integral part of the Walt Disney studio during its greatest period of creativity in the 1930s and ′40s, then returned in the 1980s and remained active until his death at the age of 99 in 2005. Joe Ranft studied at Cal Arts, along with John Lasseter and Brad Bird, and ultimately became a key figure at Pixar as it—

—blossomed into the world’s foremost animation studio. His life was tragically cut short at the age of 45, just a few months after Grant passed away.

It’s obvious that both men’s careers are worthy of attention, but Canemaker has dug beneath the bullet points of their résumés to create a candid, intimate and well-rounded portrait of two unusually talented artists.

Joe Ranft was a rambunctious, almost uncontrollable child who didn’t find a positive outlet for his boundless energy and imagination until he started drawing, as an adolescent. Early in his career he realized that he wanted to focus on storytelling, at a time when “story” in animation still meant drawing, not typing. A generous and encouraging colleague and mentor, he was much loved wherever he worked, yet he still harbored demons that had to be tamed.

Joe Grant was the son of a successful newspaper illustrator and followed his father’s path, enjoying almost immediate success. It was his gift for caricature that brought him to Walt Disney’s attention in the early 1930s, and eventually, led to a permanent job offer. I knew Joe fairly well and thought I had a firm grasp of his career, but Canemaker discusses aspects of Joe’s time at Disney I never knew—like the friction and jealousy that arose when he became Walt’s confidant and headed the newly-created character model department, which operated much more informally than the rest of the deadline-driven studio. Joe’s enormous, seemingly effortless creativity, matched by an air of superiority, proved to be his downfall with many coworkers and ultimately with Walt himself. It’s a fascinating story that hasn’t been told before.

Both halves of this handsomely-designed volume are generously illustrated with candid photos and scores of drawings, both personal and professional. They truly enhance the text and help us understand what made both Joes so special.

No one who cares about Disney history or the evolution of Pixar should fail to read this informative and deeply moving book.

If you live in the New York City area, John Canemaker is hosting a pair of programs on October 1 and 2 at the Museum of Modern Art honoring the work of Joe Ranft and Joe Grant. Here is the schedule:

Screening Schedule – October 1–2, 2010

John Canemaker’s Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant and Joe Ranft

Friday, October 1

7:00 John Canemaker’s Two Guys Named Joe. Canemaker discusses the work of Joe Grant and Joe Ranft in a lecture extensively illustrated with film clips and still images. Program 75 min. Introduced by and followed by a book signing with Canemaker.

Saturday, October 2

2:00 Fun with Mr. Future. 1982. USA. Directed by Darrell Van Citters. Joe Ranft contributed gags to this zany short, which was cobbled together from animated bits of a shelved Epcot TV special and is hosted by a talking Animatronics head (with wires exposed) wearing a bowtie. Courtesy The Walt Disney Studios. 8 min.

Luxo Jr. 1986. USA. Written and directed by John Lasseter. The first film to be produced by Pixar Animation Studios after its establishment as an independent studio, and the first CGI film to be nominated for an Academy Award. 2 min.

Tin Toy. 1988. USA. Written and directed by John Lasseter. This Academy Award–winning short anticipates Toy Story in its use of anthropomorphic toys as characters. 5 min.

Toy Story. 1995. USA. Directed by John Lasseter. Story by Lasseter, Pete Docter, Joe Ranft, Andrew Stanton. 80 min. Program 95 min.

5:00 Mickey’s Gala Premier. 1933. USA. Directed by Bert Gillette. Animation character designs by Joe Grant (uncredited). Grant’s first film at Disney, for which he designed all the celebrity caricatures. 7 min.

Who Killed Cock Robin? 1935. USA. Directed by David Hand (uncredited). Story and animation by Joe Grant, William Cottrell (uncredited), and others. Grant and Cottrell devised the satiric story, and Grant designed the characters, including Jenny Wren, a caricature of Mae West. 8 min.

Lorenzo. 2004. USA. Directed by Mike Gabriel. Screenplay by Gabriel, Joe Grant. An Academy Award–nominated short about a blue cat whose tail has a mind of its own. Grant created the concept, story, and character for this, his last film at Disney. Courtesy The Walt Disney Studios. 5 min.

Dumbo. 1941. USA. Directed by Ben Sharpsteen. Screenplay by Joe Grant, Dick Huemer. Courtesy The Walt Disney Studios. 64 min. Program 85 min.

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