At the end of Pixar’s 2001 movie Monsters, Inc., the very fabric of monster society is torn asunder, as an entire world populated by monsters and powered by the fear of human children suddenly learns that kids’ laughter elicits more power than screams. With the evildoers in charge, who planned on terrorizing children forever, out of the way, the heroes look toward humor to fuel their world. Twenty years later, the Disney Plus series Monsters at Work picks up right after this shocking revelation, following the power company Monsters, Inc. and the society it serves, as both of them deal with a radical transition.
With a huge cast of characters and humor that waddles along the line between silliness and sharp societal commentary, Monsters at Work balances a whole lot. In the initial two episodes provided for critics, the series takes its first tentative steps along what appears to be a wobby tightrope.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight setup spoilers for Monsters at Work.]
Tylor Tuskmon (Ben Feldman) is a fresh graduate of Monster University’s Scare program, and he’s excited to join Monsters, Inc. as a scarer, entering the human world and frightening children to generate energy. But his first day of work is also the first day that Monsters, Inc. pivots to laugh energy. He’s reassigned to the Monsters, Inc. Facilities Team (or MIFT), much to his chagrin, though he aims to take comedy classes under the tutelage of one-eyed monster Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) in order to make it on the newly established Laugh Floor.
The Monsters at Work concept is intriguing. Monsters, Inc. certainly left a lot of loose ends to tie up, and they were only loosened by the 2013 prequel Monsters University. Pivoting an entire industry to a radically different business can’t happen overnight, and Monsters at Work explores the ramifications of what that means for individual monsters who might or might not be able to rapidly shift gears. As a recent graduate, Tylor has spent his entire life dreaming of being a scarer. He’s a talented standout, beating even the college scaring records set by Mike’s pal Sulley (John Goodman). Tylor’s family put all their savings into his now-useless college education so he could get a job in an industry he was certain would provide him with job security, and his lifelong plan falls apart the day he reports for work. That’s pretty heavy stuff for what could just be a lighthearted animated romp.
The show juggles these frankly weighty issues with effervescent comedy. When Tylor meets his chatty old classmate Val (Mindy Kaling), who works for MIFT, she rambles on about how funny it is that she dropped out of college while he racked up massive debts, and yet they ended up in the same exact job. She also announces that she got rid of the back-up beeper on the golf cart she drives around, so she can make the noise herself — and then proceeds to go “beep, beep, beep, beep, beep.” It’s a strange juxtaposition of reality-based anxiety humor aimed at adults, and wacky kid-friendly gags.
Monsters at Work isn’t just balancing its humor, it’s also balancing the new cast and the old one. Goodman, Crystal, and Jennifer Tilly as snake-haired receptionist Celia all resume their movie roles, alongside other familiar voices. Mike and Sulley have what appears to be a major arc, as they assume control of the company and have to figure out how to transition to a new model. Meanwhile, Tylor resists blending in with the nerdy MIFT crew, including overly enthusiastic boss Fritz (Henry Winkler) and opportunistic Duncan (Lucas Neff). While the first two episodes mostly focus on introducing (and reintroducing) the many characters, it’s unclear how the pieces and personalities will mesh together. Everyone shares the same overall goal — transitioning Monsters, Inc. to laugh energy — which makes the character intros more seamless: Tylor meets new and old characters when they become relevant to his own mission, while Mike and Sulley provide some background on what’s going on at the company.
In a rare case for television shows sprung from movies, the animation in the TV version, from Disney Television Animation, actually looks better than Pixar’s film version, since the original is 20 years old, and computer graphics have improved dramatically since then. Sulley’s fur, considered a major breakthrough achievement in animation back in 2001, is more detailed in the TV version. Mike looks less clay-like, and the new character designs are vibrant. Admittedly, Val looks a bit like a recolor of Art from Monsters University, but tapir-like Fritz is unique to the new world.
One thing Monsters at Work doesn’t balance, however, is the human world and the monster one. Much like Monsters University, the show appears to lean more on the inner workings of monster society, instead of how it interacts with our reality. It dives into a new chapter of the franchise, one that basically abandons the idea that monsters are sometimes scary. With only two episodes available so far, it’s unclear whether the show will explore the lines between scary monster expectation and mundane monster reality in the way the first movie did, or if it will just expand the day-to-day life of the monster world. Either way, it’s a great balancing act to pull off, and the first two episodes indicate a promising journey ahead.
The first two episodes of Monsters at Work hit Disney Plus on July 7. New episodes premiere on Wednesdays.