'Monsters at Work' Review: Pixar's Disney+ Series Aims for Laughs, But Has a Tough Time Matching Wits with 'Monsters Inc.'

'Monsters at Work' Review: Pixar's Disney+ Series Aims for Laughs, But Has a Tough Time Matching Wits with 'Monsters Inc.'

Monsters Inc. stands as one of Pixar’s best examples of taking the societal norms of the real world and turning them into a clever, mesmerizing, and imaginative setting that has a story full of humor and heart. Unfortunately, Monsters at Work and the fictional company at the center of the new series on Disney+ are both under new management. If the city of Monstropolis is relying on the power of laughter to run their city, Monsters at Work may result in rolling blackouts with only polite laughter permeating this diet, zero sugar, caffeine free version of Monsters Inc. But it’s not all bad.

Monsters at Work is a sequel series following Monsters Inc. that picks up the day after the Monstropolis power plant has discovered that the power of children’s laughter has ten times more energy than their screams. After a coup has resulted in the corrupt Henry J. Waternoose III being removed from his position as CEO, the furry blue James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) and green, one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) are taking over the company. The duo have been tasked with transitioning Monsters Inc. to laugh power, but Monsters at Work isn’t entirely about continuing their story.

This Isn’t Just Mike and Sulley’s Story

The main character of Monsters at Work is Tylor Tuskmon (Ben Feldman), a horned Scarum Cum Laude graduate of Monsters University School of Scaring. Fresh out of college with a job offer from Monsters Inc., he’s ready to make his dreams come true by bringing nightmares to kids. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get that opportunity, because he arrives at Monsters Inc. just as everything is being completely overhauled, including the “We scare because we care” slogan on the front of the building.

Tylor finds himself forced to temporarily join the crew in MIFT (the Monsters Inc. Facilities Team), a gang of misfits who take care of any technical or mechanical problems that the company might have. But he doesn’t intend on being stuck there for long. Tylor jumps at the opportunity to enlist in Mike Wazowksi’s comedy college, which is trying to turn the company’s scarers into full-on jokesters. Because even though laughter is ten times more powerful than screams, there aren’t enough skilled jokesters to keep the power supply going strong.

Where Monsters at Work Falls Short

If you think this sounds like a solid set-up for an enjoyable workplace comedy for kids, you’re right. The series isn’t downright terrible, and it will absolutely be satisfying entertainment for the kids in your household. It takes the comedic antics of The Office and The IT Crowd (and maybe the show-within-a-show When the Whistle Blows from Extras) and mixes it up in a colorful monstrous package for the whole family. But when we’re talking about a project from the geniuses at Pixar Animation, it’s not quite good enough.

Pixar’s batting average is high as hell, so, comparatively, the series feels like it’s more along the lines of a straight-to-clamshell-VHS sequel that Disney churned out in the 2000s, even if it’s better than 90% of the animated programming out there for kids. Actually, a better comparison might be the Disney animated series adaptations, especially since the show’s executive producer Bobs Gannaway previously worked on shows like 101 Dalmatians: The Series, Timon & Pumbaa, Lilo & Stitch: The Series, and The Emperor’s New School.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of Monsters at Work is Tylor as the lead. The character feels like a vehicle for exploring a new part of Monsters Inc. and also serves as a gateway for us to see how the company will be revamped. But he’s Jim Halpert without any of the goods that made The Office character endearing or enjoyable to follow. Plus, there’s something about Ben Feldman’s voice that doesn’t match Tylor’s character design, a rare misstep for Pixar Animation.

Even the animation in Monsters at Work feels somewhat subpar. At first, I thought this might be an intentional technique used to match the look of Monsters Inc. from all the way back in 2003. This is something animators did in the opening sequence of The Incredibles II, gradually improving the quality of the animation so the contrast between the sequel and its 14-year-old predecessor wasn’t so dramatic. But even the second episode of the series feels like it lacks the rich detail and creativity expected from Pixar. That’s presumably due to a lower budget for streaming, but it can be a little distracting at times when you know Pixar is capable of so much more.

The New Characters

Monsters at Work simply lacks the cleverness and imagination of both Monsters Inc. and even the inferior but still delightfully charming Monsters University. Instead, it relies on the boundless zaniness of Mike Wazowski and the enthusiasm of new characters like the friendly but overeager Val (Mindy Kaling being more bubbly and talking faster than Kelly on The Office) and the MIFT supervisor Fritz (Henry Winkler, going above and beyond in an extremely energetic vocal performance).

Also lurking around MIFT is a Dwight Schrute type in the form of a swamp green, four-eyed, winged monster named Duncan (Lucas Neff), who has a grand plan to inherit Fritz’s job and suspects Tylor of trying to ruin that. There’s also the industrial Cutter, a three-eyed crab walking blue collar lady (Alanna Ubach) who offers up the best low-key running gag, constantly and casually mentioning the names of MIFT employees who have met grisly ends over the years.

On the sillier side of laughs, there’s the odd monster known only as Banana Bread, who looks like a green banana with three vertical eyes and yellow lips at the very top. Banana Bread always brings in banana bread to the office and only speaks in raspberries, which makes him a prime candidate to become a new jokester on the newly dubbed Laughing Floor. It’s one of the more childish elements of the series, but I’ll admit that his presence made me laugh.

Where Monsters at Work Has Potential

Where Monsters at Work has the potential to be something remarkable is by painting an optimistic picture of the blue collar side of Monsters Inc. Up until now, the focus has been on the admired scarers and the education they received at Monsters University. But Monsters at Work shines a light on those behind the scenes with all the hands-on jobs that keep the laughing floor running smoothly. Between the overt mention of one of the MIFT characters not graduating college and the newfound respect that Tylor gets for his co-workers when he actually sees them working efficiently with each other, Monsters at Work appears to be setting kids up for a story that proposes the helpful idea that dropping out of college and not being able to follow through on one’s dreams isn’t the end of the world. Of course, that’s speculation based only on the first two episodes of the series so far.

Perhaps it’s too early to completely discount Monsters at Work. After all, even the best comedies needed between a few episodes and an entire season and a half to find their footing, and that includes The Office. At the same time, when we’re dealing with animation that takes a long time to finish, especially from the master storytellers at Pixar Animation, we’ve come to expect something a little better when it comes to the quality of writing and animation. Even the dynamic between Mike and Sulley feels like it’s not quite as sharp as it needs to be, though Mike doesn’t get an outstanding musical bit at the end of the second episode.

Monsters at Work simply doesn’t feel on par with the likes of Disney+ original offerings that follow their big screen predecessors. Unlike the TV shows of Marvel Studios, Monsters at Work doesn’t feel like it’s coming from the same powerhouse animation studio that gave us Monsters Inc. It’s not quite as bad as Planes when compared to Cars, but it’s also not as satisfying as something like The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers. But since it took 10 episodes before that series truly fit into the skates of The Mighty Ducks franchise, maybe we can give Monsters at Work a little more time to get used to the job after orientation.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

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