He received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay nomination as one of the writers of Toy Story (1995), and was also co-director on Cars (2006), his final work.
Ranft was born in Pasadena, California, and raised in Whittier. As a child, Ranft developed a love for magic, storytelling, film and comedy. At age 15, he became a member of the Magic Castle Junior Group. After graduating from Monte Vista High School, Whittier, in 1978, Ranft began studying in the character animation program at the California Institute of the Arts alongside John Lasseter and Brad Bird. After two years, Ranft's student film Good Humor caught the attention of Disney animation executives, who offered him a job.
In 1980, Ranft joined Disney as a writer and storyboard artist. During his first five years with Disney, Joe worked on a number of television projects that were never produced. Later in his Disney career, he was promoted into the Feature Animation department, where he was mentored by Eric Larson. Ranft later spoke about training under the Disney legend: "He always reminds me of just the fundamental things that I tend to forget. You know, it's like, animation is so complex; 'How many drawings are in there?' and stuff, but Eric always comes back to like; 'What does the audience perceive?'"
Around this time, he studied under and began performing with the improvisational group, The Groundlings. Ranft stayed with Disney throughout the 1980s, writing the story on many animated features, including Oliver & Company, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. He also worked on The Brave Little Toaster in 1987 for Hyperion Animation and James and the Giant Peach in 1996 for Allied Filmmakers.
Ranft reunited with Lasseter when he was hired by Pixar in 1991 as their head of story. There he worked on all of their films produced up to 2006; this included Toy Story (for which he received an Academy Award nomination) and A Bug's Life, as the co-story writer and others as story supervisor. His final film was Cars. He also voiced characters in many of the films, including Heimlich the caterpillar in A Bug's Life, Wheezy the penguin in Toy Story 2, and Jacques the shrimp in Finding Nemo.
In the movie Monsters, Inc., Ranft had a monster named after him (J.J. Ranft) as most of the scarers in the film were named for Pixar staff. Ranft used a German accent to voice Heimlich the caterpillar in A Bug's Life and a French accent to voice Jacques the shrimp in Finding Nemo. He was also given lead story credit on The Brave Little Toaster (1987) and voiced Elmo St. Peters, the appliance salesman.
His favorite writers were Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe. His favorite magicians were John Carney, Daryl, Michael Ammar, Ricky Jay and Jimmy Grippo.
He was posthumously honored in 2006 as a Disney Legend and in 2016 with the Winsor McCay Award, the lifetime achievement award for animators.
On August 16, 2005, Ranft and his friend Eric Frierson were passengers in Ranft's 2004 Honda Element, which was being driven by another friend, Elegba Earl. Earl suddenly lost control and crashed through the guard rail while northbound on Highway 1. The SUV plunged 130 feet into the mouth of the Navarro River in Mendocino County, California. Ranft and Earl were both killed instantly. Frierson survived by escaping through the sun roof, though he received moderate injuries. Ranft, who was 45, died during the production of Cars, which he co-directed and voice acted in. The film and tie-in game are dedicated to his memory, as is Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, on which Ranft was executive producer. Ranft is survived by his wife Sue and their two children, Jordan and Sophia, and his brother Jerome.
Henry Selick called him "the story giant of our generation." In honor of Ranft, in Selick's animated film production Coraline, the moving SUV that moves Coraline into her new apartment is emblazoned with a "Ranft Moving, Inc." logo. The movers themselves are modeled after Ranft himself and his brother Jerome; Jerome Ranft voiced one of the movers.
In the 2010 DVD re-release of Toy Story 2, there is a special feature that talks about Ranft and his life and accomplishments.Luau (1982 - actor "I.Q.")
The Brave Little Toaster (1987 - voice of Elmo St. Peters, Screenplay and Story, directing animator)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988 - story artist)
Oliver & Company (1988 - Story)
The Little Mermaid (1989 - Storysketch Artist: animation)
The Rescuers Down Under (1990 - Animation Screenplay, Story Supervisor)
Beauty and the Beast (1991 - Story and provided several cartoon screams)
Aladdin (1992 - Story and provided several cartoon screams)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993 - Storyboard Supervisor, voice of Igor)
The Lion King (1994 - Story)
Toy Story (1995 - voice of Lenny the Binoculars, Story/Story Supervisor)
James and the Giant Peach (1996 - Storyboard Supervisor)
A Bug's Life (1998 - voice of Heimlich, Story/Story Supervisor)
Toy Story 2 (1999 - voice of Wheezy, Additional Story Material)
Fantasia 2000 (1999 - Additional Art: story)
The Emperor's New Groove (2000 - Special Thanks)
Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins (2000 - voice of Wheezy)
Monsters, Inc. (2001 - voice of Pete "Claws" Ward, Story Artist)
Monkeybone (2001 - Streetsquash Rabbit)
Treasure Planet (2002 - voice of Pirates)
Finding Nemo (2003 - voice of Jacques the Shrimp)
The Incredibles (2004 - Additional Voices)
Corpse Bride (2005 - Executive Producer, Dedication)
Cars (2006 - Co-Director, voice of Red and Peterbilt, Screenplay, Dedication, Final roles)
Mater and the Ghostlight (2006 - Story)