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A 'Toon Man for the Ages : Animation: Joe Grant was on Disney's original talent team. After working on many classics, he quit in '49. Nearly 40 years later, he returned, making his mark on the latest hits.

January 19, 1995|DAVID SEIDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Grant signed up. "They treated me very well and helped me to become (financially) independent." By the 1970s, Grant had retired, although he kept creating ideas and drawings.

Enter Charlie Fink.

In 1987, Fink--today chief operating officer of the virtual-reality company Virtual World Entertainment--was Disney Feature Animation's vice president for creative affairs. Among his tasks: find stories to make into movies.

Company vice chairman Roy Disney told him to see retired Disney animation director Jack Kinney, who had batches of notes and drawings. But Kinney, Fink recalls, was ill and "not terribly lucid. And either Jack or Jack's wife knew this, so they asked their friend Joe Grant to sit in on the meeting because Joe could translate, and he knew what a lot of this stuff was."

Fink had never heard of Grant. When he learned of Grant's credits, Fink invited the artist back to Disney. Grant says that he had never yearned to return, but "my wife said, 'Why don't you go back? That's where you belong.' "

Despite his 38-year absence, coming back to Disney, Grant says, was "deja vu. . . . Nothing changed. Same people, same gripes."

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Grant provided the "Beauty and the Beast" crew with ideas and designs for characters such as Mrs. Potts, the motherly teapot. For "Aladdin," Grant offered ideas for Aladdin's pet monkey, Abu, and expressions and gestures for the flying carpet that befriends Aladdin. On "The Lion King," Grant worked on the baboon shaman Rafiki, and the relationship between King Mufasa and his hornbill adviser Zazu, among other things.

"Pocahontas," directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, will see even more of Grant's work. Gabriel was initially surprised to see that Grant was still active. But when he started working on the film, he recruited the veteran.

"Mike and I worked for--oh, months," Grant says. "Just in a room across from each other, making drawings and ideas . . . design ideas, story ideas or gag ideas." Story department head Tom Sito mentions that Grant contributed heavily to that Disney staple, the heroine and her animal friends.

"I wouldn't ask Joe Grant to look at a script and give me notes about its overall structure," says senior vice president for animation Tom Schumacher. "I ask Joe for character motivations, entertainment, things to leaven the overall tone, character business, design issues."

Schumacher remembers that shortly before leaving Disney, "Jeffrey Katzenberg was screaming, 'C'mon, Joe, we need something here, something funny, something charming!' "

Grant's enjoying his second Disney career. "When I went back there," he says, "there was sort of a resurgence of ideas I've had all along."

He adds, "I felt just as vital as I ever did. And that's what counts."

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