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"Two Guys Named Joe" celebrates the creative legacy of two Disney Legends

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"Two Guys Named Joe" celebrates the creative legacy of two Disney Legends

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So why exactly should you buy "Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant & Joe Ranft" (Disney Editions, August 2010)?

Because this new John Canemaker book not only does a brilliant job of paying tribute to these animation legends, this 192-page hardcover contains one of the funniest stories to ever come out of modern day Hollywood.

Don't believe me? Okay. Let me set the stage for this particular anecdote. Which John Lasseter actually told at Joe Ranft's memorial service back in August of 2005.

(L to R) John  Lasseter and Joe Ranft working together on the storyboards
for "Toy Story." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

It's early 1998. And John & Joe have just flown down to LA to supervise the final recording sessions for "A Bug's Life." And given what a grueling production this particular Pixar film has been ... Well, both men are already exhausted and in a bad mood when they arrive at LAX and discover that Disney has booked them this incredibly junky rental car.

To make matters worse, Disney has arranged for Lasseter & Ranft to stay at the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Which is this sleek, slick place staffed by thin, well-dressed men and women who clearly judge you by what you wear and/or what you drive.

And here are Lasseter & Ranft, tired & rumpled from their flight down from the Bay Area, knowing that their junky rental car will be judged inferior to all the Mercedes and the Ferraris that have already been valeted that day.

So as they roll up to the Mondarian, John turns to Joe and says "Put in the teeth."

Now for those of you who don't know: "The teeth" that Lasseter is referring to are these ... Well, I'd better let Canemaker explain ...

... a set of distorted false incisors ("Billy Bob teeth") Lasseter bought for Ranft. His pal Joe could always make Lasseter laugh with his zany, satirical, often black humor and spot-on impressions and imagined characters.

(And) no character made Lasseter laugh harder than the dim-witted hillbilly who came out whenever "the teeth" went in.

An unctuous valet approached. Ranft inserted the dilapidated dentures and rolled the window down.

"Welcome to the Mond ..." was as far as the valet got before being confronted by a large redneck at the wheel, grinnin' wide with amazingly bad teeth and talkin' loud!

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"Is this hee-ah the Mun-dar-eee-aan Hoe-tel?"

The valet attempted to keep Ranft in the car. "I'm sorry, sir. Do you have a reservation?"

Lasseter suppressed his laughter, wondering "How's Joe going to get out of this?"

Ranft opened the door, his huge frame towering over the valet. "Yeah. Muh name's Eisner. Chucky Eisner. My Uncle Michael's gonna let me make a moooovie!"

"Chucky" flashed a sweet, gaggle-toothed smile at the horrified and confused valet. Lasseter lost it.

Now it's important to stress here that Ranft wasn't actually making fun of hillbillies and/or rural types in a mean-spirited way. To be honest, Joe was just out to pop the pretense of that far-too-snooty valet at the Mondrian Hotel. Plus - of course - make John Lasseter laugh.

To back up that claim ...  Well, let's contrast the Mun-dar-eee-aan story with another one that Canemaker unearthed for "Two Guys Named Joe." Which deals with the research trip that Joe and several other Pixar staffers made in July 2003 while they were working on "Cars." As these folks rolled along the Mother Road ...

Copyright 2010 Disney Editions. All rights reserved

... Ranft befriended many Route 66 denizens. But there was one "good ol' boy" in the middle of Oklahoma who invited (Joe) to his home, took him fishing, fed him baloney sandwiches, and gave him ice water out of a jug. This fellow's claim to fame was his ability to turn his double-jointed leg backwards 180 degrees. "I kick muh leg," he said, demonstrating proudly.

It was like a magic trick, and "Joe thought this was the greatest thing he'd ever seen," (said Jonas Rivera, "Cars" production manager). From this odd encounter, Ranft created what Lasseter calls "the single greatest" Pixar character: Mater, a rusty tow truck / good ol' boy with a deep-fried accent.

On the surface, Mater seems like a stereotypical hillbilly, not far removed from Chucky Eisner. But "Joe was sensitive to not doing a parody," Rivera said. "He didn't want to make fun of the people he met. He wanted to celebrate them as individuals."

As the film unfolds we discover hidden facets in Mater, such as a sly humor born of quiet intelligence, sensivity, and an honest appraisal of people and their foibles; plus there's a joy of life exuberantly expressed by wildly driving backward through the town (adapted from the Oklahoma fellow's trick leg). There is Mater's endearing loyalty to friends and his childlike willingness to find the good in people and seek their friendship openly. There is his warmth mixed with mischievousness and forthrightness.

Joe Ranft's early concept sketches for the character of Mater.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Ranft put a lot of himself into the endearing Mater, which Lasseter appreciated: "I realize it's Joe. This is pure Joe." Mater's loyal friendship to McQueen, whom he considers his best friend and can make laugh and appreciate life, mirrors Ranft's longtime relationship with Lasseter.

You know what else is great about "Two Guys Named Joe" ? Canemaker doesn't gloss anything over or pull any punches. He talks in great detail about the many frustrations that Ranft faced over the course of his professional career. Take - for example - "The Rescuers Down Under." Which might have been a far different (and perhaps better) film if not for the constant interference of then-Disney management and marketing executives.

As Brenda Chapman (who was part of Joe Ranft's story team on "The Rescuers Down Under") told Canemaker :

" ... what was difficult was a sense of wanting to be true to Australia. We wanted to use an Aboriginal little boy [for the lead] but were forced to go with a little blond kid. (The film might as well have been set in) Arizona by the time it was finished."

So is it any wonder that Joe - feeling creatively burned out and frustrated due to the constant interference from non-creative executives -- stepped away from Disney in September of 1990? Moving up to Seattle just to get away from LA for a while. Which - as it turned out - was a very lucky move indeed. For it then made Ranft available to work on Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and then - after consulting briefly on "Beauty and the Beast" - to begin working for Pixar.

Mind you, what's kind of ironic about this was - just as Joe Ranft was walking away from Disney - Joe Grant (after a 40 year absence) was returning to the Mouse House.

For those of you who don't know: Grant began his career at Walt Disney Studios back in 1937. Where he quickly became one of the Company's top writers and gagmen. And over the next 12 years, there wasn't a film made at the Mouse Factory that wasn't somehow influenced by Joe.

Joe Grant and Walt  Disney reviewing concept art for "Fantasia."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which - to be honest - ticked off a number of the folks at Disney Studios. They didn't like it when Walt played favorites. Especially given the huge influence that Grant - as the founder of the Studio's Character Model Department - had over the shorts & features that Disney was producing at that time.

In fact, according to Canemaker, Walt himself began to resent the influence that Joe was having over the Studio's output. After a "Time" magazine article about "Dumbo" (which Grant co-wrote with his longtime creative partner Dick Huemer) heaped a bit too much praise at Joe's feet for Walt's liking ...

Well, here's the Dick Huemer quote that Canemaker unearthed:

"After Walt read the article, he met Joe Grant and myself in the (parking lot) and indicated his displeasure. He didn't think that it was a very good article, not particularly flattering to him. As (Walt) turned away he said "What the hell, didn't I have anything to do with the picture?," which is what the write-up sounds like, I admit."

"Even though Dumbo has always been regarded as one of Walt's better pictures, he hated it," said Huemer. Using an odd analogy for a city boy, he explained that Walt "had to 'own lamb.' Until the mother licks the lamb clean and makes it hers, she won't nurse it."

Joe Grant's watercolor concept painting of Dumbo. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

That's what I always love about John Canemaker books. His ability to ferret out these unique bits of animation history. To strip away years of varnish and veneer, decades of carefully massaged Disney Company history to then reveal what really happened at the Mouse Factory back in the day.

And because Grant returned to Disney in 1989 ... Well, by reading "Two Guys Named Joe," you can also gain insights about how many of the films that were produced during the Second Golden Age of Disney Feature Animation actually came together. Take - for example - this story that Canemaker got veteran story man Burny Mattinson to share about "Pocahontas."

I'd just come onto the picture and Jeffrey (Katzenberg) wanted to get rid of Grandmother Willow. He didn't like her because she was ordinary, unfunny. They were having (story) problems, some of the story men were bolting. Peter (Schneider) said I want you to get over there and work in there." Mattinson was given a section to storyboard of Pocahontas sitting on a tree stump, delivering straight, dull, dialogue.

Joe Grant's concept sketch of Pocahontas with
her animal friends. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"One day Joe came in with these cornball sayings" for Grandmother Willow. "My bark is worse than my bite," "The roots of all problems," "They're barking up the wrong tree" (spoke to termites), one gag after another. He says, 'Use these.'

"Are you kidding?" Mattinson said. "I have to pitch this (storyboard) tomorrow and you want me to use these?"

"Yeah, yeah. I think these are good. You use them."

"No, I'm not gonna do it, Joe. Forget it!" Mattinson protested.

Grant walked out and went home. Mattinson thought about it and decided he would put all the corny sayings in and pitch it tomorrow "just to show Joe how bad they are."

Early the next morning, Mattinson showed Grant the board interwoven with his corny sayings. "Yeah, that's good. These are wonderful," he said. Mattinson remained skeptical but went to the story meeting and pitched.

"Everybody loved it!," Mattinson recalls. "All of a sudden: 'Oh, I want her in!,' ' Let's build her part bigger!' So Joe saved Grandmother Willow. And Joe did that constantly. He would come up with little ideas, little touches like that.

But as more and more non-creative executives at Disney became involved in the animation process in the late 1990s, Grant found his efforts to help improve the Company's motion pictures were increasingly marginalized. Which led to some real missed opportunities. As Canemaker got Thomas Schumacher (i.e. formerly the head of Walt Disney Animation Studios, now the big Cheese at Disney Theatrical) to recall:

"(Grant's) hearing was bad, he would never go with the group dynamic. He was never on track with anything. But, left to his own devices ..."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

To finish his sentence, Schumacher silently reveals a simple line drawing by Grant. It is of Quasimodo, the squat, stout hunchbacked bell ringer from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, staring dumbfounded at his reflection in a large elongated bell. In his stretched likeness, he is tall and straight, a reversal of fun-house mirror alterations. "After he polishes the bell," Grant wrote on this tiny but emotionally powerful drawing, "the distortion makes him whole."

"Beautiful," Schumacher says quietly. "Why didn't we use that?"

Why indeed? But on the upside ... John Canemaker never ever leaves a great animation-related story behind. He always finds a way to weave these little insights / amazing gems into his books.

And - trust me, folks - as good as the stories that I've excerpted for today's article may be, there are dozens more to be found in "Two Guys named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant & Joe Ranft." Which is why I urge to pick up a copy of this terrific new Disney Editions book.

The two Joes together - Joe Grant and Joe Ranft
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

FYI: If you'd like to add an extra special copy of "Two Guys Named Joe" to your animation reference library, you could get the author to sign his latest book by attending some of the promotional events that Canemaker will be taking part in over the next few months. On August 13 & 14, John will be lecturing about the two Joes at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Then - on August 17th - Canemaker will be signing copies at the Glendale Americana Barnes & Noble.

And then -- on August 18th -- John will be at Disneyland. To be specific, John will be doing a signing at the Disney Gallery on Main Street, U.S.A. from 9 - 11 a.m.

Come next month, John will be doing a signing for "Two Guys Named Joe" at the Animazing Gallery on September 25th. Then in October ... Well, Canemaker will start things off with a major lecture about Joe Grant & Joe Ranft at the Museum of Modern Art which will then be followed by a book signing in the MFA gift. John will then head over to New Jersey and do a book signing for "Two Guys Called Joe" at Cel-ebration! on October 2nd.

 For further information on other promotion appearances for "Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant & Joe Ranft," please check out John Canemaker's website.

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