It shouldn’t be surprising when a Disney product gets reduced and diminished for TV versions that can serve as familiar babysitters for kids around the world. After all, it’s been happening for generations with TV editions of hit Disney films, but they used to be the product of Saturday mornings and basic cable. Now, there’s space for them on the powerhouse streamer Disney+. And as if to note the elevated platform, the latest such offering from the biggest entertainment company in the world comes with an elevated voice cast too, including a few comedy legends. Sadly, it feels about as clever and thin as the cash grabs that have come through this pipeline for years. Any hope that the Pixar charm would rub off on a Pixar show like “Monsters at Work” doesn’t pay off in the first two episodes. The voice cast is stellar but the writing doesn’t just pale when compared to “Monsters Inc.,” “Monsters University,” and to so many other offerings on the same service. Spin-off shows used to satisfy a need for entertainment options for kids, but the question worth asking is if they still serve a function on a streaming service that offers hundreds of hours of Disney and Pixar history?
Bobs Gannaway knows a thing or two about spin-offs. He’s been doing this for years, producing TV shows like “Timon & Pumbaa,” “101 Dalmations: The Series,” “Lilo & Stitch: The Series,” and “The Emperor’s New School.” He’s the showrunner on “Monsters at Work,” which takes place shortly after the end of Pete Docter’s 2001 hit film. A wannabe scarer named Tylor Tuskmon (Ben Feldman of “Superstore”) has just gotten the letter he’s always dreamed about: he will be working at Monsters Inc. The problem is that he reports for work just after the end of the movie, which fans will remember saw the company that was built around during childhood fear into energy into one focused on making kids laugh instead of scream. Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) have been adapting to the change and Ms. Flint (Bonnie Hunt) is forcing all the monsters to take comedy classes. Where will Tyler fit in?
The natural scarer commits himself to figuring out how to become a jokester, but he’s shuffled off to MIFT (Monsters Inc. Facilities Team), a group of technicians and maintenance creatures led by the gregarious Fritz (Henry Winkler) and optimistic Val (Mindy Kaling). No one expects “Monsters at Work” to be particularly heavy, but it feels a bit like a wasted opportunity to make MIFT into more than just another goofy laugh-producing sector of Monsters Inc. Crystal leans into his vaudeville sense of humor in some funny bits (“True friends never say goodbye ... so goodbye.”) but almost everything on the show is pitched at the same section of the funny bone when the story so naturally handed the writers chances to mix it up. They just chose not to take them, taking the easy routes visually and narratively. Both episodes screened for press feel much longer than their 24 and 22-minute runtimes, and that’s in part because the humor isn’t just repetitive, it’s flat. If the goal of this new Monsters Inc. is to make kids laugh, the show about that journey is failing. (And lest you think that I'm just being a curmudgeon, my three kids agreed both episodes felt long and unfocused, both wishing Mike and Sully weren't being relegated to supporting characters.)
It’s also frustrating that "Monsters at Work" is so visually flat given “Monsters Inc.,” especially in its climactic door sequence, was such a visual marvel, at least for its time. The whole thing has the air of a Blu-ray short, one of those brief films that’s designed to make a release more palatable to potential buyers by giving them 5-6 minutes of something new. Like those shorts, “Monsters at Work” has moments—usually thanks to great actors truly elevating mediocre material with their voice work—but kids will want to be going to back to the original films before ever watching these again. And unlike the old days of spin-off series, they'll be able to do so on the same platform.
Two episodes screened for press.