Born in New York City, New York, he worked for The Walt Disney Company as a character designer and story artist beginning in 1933 on the Mickey Mouse short, Mickey's Gala Premier. He created the Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He led development the of Pinocchio and co-wrote Fantasia and Dumbo. During World War II, Grant worked on war cartoons including the Academy Award winning Der Fuehrer's Face.
Grant was Jewish, and rigorously denied rumours that Walt Disney was anti-semetic claiming "some of the most influential people at the studio were Jewish"
Lady, the protagonist from Lady and the Tramp was based on a pet English Springer Spaniel named Lady owned by Joe Grant, it is said by his daughter on the DVD (Lady and the Tramp) that Walt Disney thought the dog's long fur looked like a dress and suggested creating a story board featuring his dog.
Grant left the Disney studio in 1949 and ran a ceramics business and a greeting card business but returned in 1989 to work on Beauty and the Beast. He also worked on Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, Fantasia 2000, and Pixar's Monsters, Inc. among others. The last two films he worked on before his death, Chicken Little and Pixar's Up, were dedicated to him.
Grant worked four days a week at Disney until he died, nine days before his 97th birthday. Grant's final project, Lorenzo, for which he conceived the idea and helped storyboard, received an Academy Award nomination in 2005.
He was a Disney legend.
In 2004, a short film he developed called Lorenzo was made and was based on his cat who got into a fight with two poodles back in 1949. While it happened, he was thinking, "what would happen if he lost his tail?" The short, directed by Mike Gabriel, was released on March 4th, 2004 at the Florida Film Festival and made its world premier in front of the critically panned Raising Helen, with this the only positive feedback from critics and audiences. The finished short was planned at the time to be attached for a planned third Fantasia movie, but in 2003, the planned feature was eventually cancelled due to several years of funding and staff cutbacks from Walt Disney Feature Animation. The short won an Annie Award for Best Animated Short Subject, and was included at the Animation Show of Shows.
On May 6, 2005, Grant was found unconscious while working in his drawing board in his home studio. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. After an autopsy was performed, the doctors discovered that the 96-year-old died of a heart attack. He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Grant's wife Jenny preceded him in death in 1992 and he was survived by two daughters.
A large collection of his caricatures is owned by the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.
The 2005 Walt Disney Animation Studios film Chicken Little (2005 film) was dedicated to his memory.