‘Monsters at Work’ Returns to the World of ‘Monsters, Inc’ for Fresh Laughs and Worthy Messages

Pixar’s “Monsters at Work” returns to the world of “Monsters, Inc.,” the beloved Disney-Pixar movie that premiered in 2001. But this series brings with it a fresh tone that also explores some surprising themes. Kids who sit down to watch the show will get free-spirited lessons on how a degree doesn’t define you and all work is noble. Sound too far-fetched for a Disney animated series? It isn’t. Animators find a certain freedom in cartoon shows, and the sharper ones utilize the format to touch on real topics. Of course this is not a social commentary program, it is also mostly goofy fun.

The corporation Monsters, Inc. is still kicking but changing as the show begins. Old founders have passed on control and the place has been handed over to one-eyed Mike (Billy Crystal) and big, hairy Sully (John Goodman), the two monster buddies we first met in the original movie. It turns out Mike and Sully were right, laughter generates more energy for their world than screams. So Mike changes the format of the place. No longer are “Scarers” trained to bring fear to sleeping kids, but now the place will specialize in “Jokesters,” meaning monsters who will pop out of your closet to make you laugh. This is pure bad luck for long-horned monster Tylor Tuskmon (Ben Feldman), who just graduated from school as a certified Scarer. He arrives at Monsters, Inc. thinking he has a secure job, but instead he no longer qualifies. So he’s moved down to the Monsters, Inc. Facilities Team (MIFT), where he can do maintenance while attempting to re-train as a Jokester. 

As a continuation of “Monsters, Inc.” and its prequel, “Monsters University,” this show has plenty of winks and throwbacks for those who grew up watching the originals. Mike and Sully are back briefly, essentially for familiarity and to also explain the basic plot. Mike is still the fast-talking comic and Sully the quieter wing man. But they recede into the background. The actual main character is Tylor, who is written like a monstrous nod at your modern-day, suburban college student. He did all the hard work, got all the A’s, but now realizes his degree doesn’t mean much when the company changes what it’s looking for. There’s some satirical fun in how Tylor is useless with basic, physical labor because he’s a pampered college kid. His boss is an overly friendly monster named Fritz (Henry Winkler), who leads the facilities team with hyped up camaraderie. Also in the crew is Val (Mindy Kaling), who went to Monsters University with Tylor but dropped out. She’s convinced she’s Tylor’s best friend now, although he’s pretty certain that’s not the case. A winged co-worker, Duncan (Lucas Neff), covets Fritz’s job and suspects Tylor wants it too.

Instead of throwing in some major villain, the real challenge Tylor faces at Monsters, Inc., is learning to value having a job with Facilities, even as he still pursues his new goal of being a Jokester. The team immediately accepts him, but Tylor sees himself as above their work, even if it’s immensely important, like making sure Mike doesn’t get trapped in a portal. This is more unique than it may sound at first in a Pixar production. Animation tends to follow the line of most live-action entertainment for younger viewers, presenting college as the instant pathway to being some sort of proper citizen.  While it’s certainly admirable to promote getting an education, most shows and movies present college as the ultimate end goal. “Monsters at Work” pokes fun at Tylor for scoffing at essential workers, but he can’t even work a wrench. Even with his degree, he has to figure things out and attaining his dream job isn’t guaranteed. Val dropped out, but she’s perfectly happy with her job and feels like she belongs to something bigger.

Older viewers will certainly like the subtle themes, assuming they are just tagging along with younger fans. For them “Monsters at Work” has many simple, memorable sights. The Monsters, Inc. facilities still feature monsters of every shape and size. There’s an audition process for Jokesters, which is a hilarious riff on auditions in general. A very eloquent thespian with multiple eyes just can’t tell a joke to the test dummy standing in for a sleeping child. His specialty is being scary. Duncan has a comfort animal that’s a snarling, little furry monstrosity. Like the movies, cuteness and wit combine for good children’s programming. “Monsters at Work” is enjoyable and on a storytelling level offers something different for young viewers. It gives them a sense that not every challenge in life comes from an evil villain, but from circumstance, and sometimes you just have to keep on learning.

Monsters at Work” season one begins streaming July 7 with new episodes premiering Wednesdays on Disney+.