Though a direct sequel to the Pixar movies that preceded it, “Monsters at Work” isn’t exactly the TV series you may expect. For one, it’s not a Pixar production. Yes, the Disney+ comedy is inspired by the world Pixar first unveiled in 2001, and, overseen by Disney Television Animation, it remains an in-house project; it’s just that the House of Mouse kept its Pixar pioneers busy on “Soul,” “Luca,” and the company’s actual first long-form TV series: “Win or Lose,” slated for Fall 2023. (That being said, Pixar has dabbled in TV before.)
So while we wait a few more years for the Pixar equivalent of the MCU hitting Disney+ (aka the animated equivalent of “WandaVision”) adjust your expectations accordingly for “Monsters at Work” — a pleasant, very well-cast office comedy for kiddos, without grander designs than that. So far, at least.
Along with smooth, rubbery animation lacking that Pixar depth and definition, “Monsters at Work” also makes a meaningful change in focus. Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) aren’t the stars anymore. Instead, they’ve been simultaneously promoted and relegated to supporting players. Picking up the day after the Monsters, Inc. power plant became a laugh factory instead of a scare facility, Sully gets offered the CEO job and Mike, well, he makes up a very long title that equates to co-boss. But times of transition are often tricky, and the plant needs to hire as many great comics as it once had skilled scarers.
Unlike the 2013 prequel, that doesn’t mean Mike and Sully recruit a new team centered around them — it means they make way for new blood, which may be for the best. Both characters already had two full movies built around life-defining transitions. “Monsters, Inc.” was more of Sully’s movie than Mike’s; the big furry fella was the one who formed a special relationship with Boo, while journeying from Top Scarer and boss’ favorite to company whisteblower and unemployed has-been. (For those who forgot, laughs create more energy than screams, so Sully’s talents for terror were rendered moot.) The 2013 prequel, “Monsters University,” flipped its focus to the green, wandering eye, leaning on Mike to embrace his best self, as a wise coach, not a terrifying scarer.
Mike and Sully had their days in the sun, and acknowledging as much allows “Monsters at Work” to look elsewhere for fresh monster stories. The new lead is Tylor Tuskmon (voiced by “Superstore’s” Ben Feldman, hopping from one office comedy to another); a talented scarer at Monsters University, Tylor looks like a purple demon with two horizontal horns sticking out either side of his square-jawed head. It’s no wonder he was recruited to work at Monsters, Inc. right out of college, but his towering frame and glistening teeth are no help anymore — at least, not on the Laugh Floor.
Courtesy of Disney+
After assurances from Sully and Mike that he can work his way up the company ladder, Tylor gets reassigned to MIFT, the Monsters, Inc. Facilities Team, while he takes comedy lessons in private (from Mike, of course). His new coworkers include Val Little (Mindy Kaling), an upside “U” with tiny red arms, eyebrows, and ears sprouting from her yellow and red fur; Fritz (Henry Winkler), the team leader whose gaping smile is hidden behind a nose so droopy it hangs down to his white belly; Duncan (Lucas Neff), a little green guy with four periscopic eyes who’s also second-in-command; and Cutter (Aianna Ubach), a green crustacean with blue claws.
With only two episodes screened for critics, it’s too early to tell where “Monsters at Work” is headed, but it’s certainly set up to be a sweet workplace comedy. Tylor dreams of becoming the next Sully (an ambition visually telegraphed by their matching color scheme), and that goal could certainly be stretched over a few seasons. Plus, it’s all the more believable he’d stick around for a bit when the allure of his MIFT colleagues is this obvious. Kaling tears through her dialogue without missing a syllable, Neff carries a sly charm to his protective No. 2, and Winkler’s enthusiastic support would be heartwarming even if you didn’t immediately think of the lovable man himself throughout. The animation could use a bit more flair, but head developer Bobs Gannaway (“Planes”) sneaks in punny jokes (one monster laments his four years at Ghoulliard) and banter (Mike’s suggestions for new company slogans sustains far longer than I would’ve thought possible) regularly enough to keep the 24-minute episodes moving.
If you love original movies and were expecting a third, “Monsters at Work” might be a bit disappointing. But if you can still appreciate the world-building (and Crystal’s unflagging energy), then the Disney+ series might still hit its laugh quotas.
“Monsters at Work” premieres Wednesday, July 7 on Disney+. New episodes will be released weekly.