“Monsters at Work,” Disney’s new animated streaming series, is an office comedy. There are so many beloved office comedies in the TV canon that even if all your protagonists are inventively designed monsters rendered in very expensive-looking computer-generated imagery, these characters have big shoes to fill — seven or eight of them, in some cases — and despite some great acting and a few good gags, the new series just doesn’t measure up.
The show follows Pete Docter’s 2001 Pixar film “Monsters, Inc.,” a classic kids’ movie about a factory for monsters who, using magical doors that open into children’s bedrooms, scare screams out of sleeping tots and capture the mystical energy of childhood terror to power the city of Monstropolis.
The conflict at the beginning of “Monsters at Work” is the happy ending of “Monsters, Inc.”: The factory is in disarray after the big revelation at the end of the original film — that beloved CEO Henry J. Waternoose III was in fact hoarding energy to maintain his company’s monopoly and hiding the truth that scaring screams out of little kids was less effective energy extraction than making them giggle, which lights up the whole town.
The new series, which began streaming with its first two episodes Wednesday, follows Tylor Tuskman (voiced by Ben Feldman), a fresh-faced graduate at the top of his class at Monsters University (a sort of Harvard for the betentacled set and the setting of the second film, a prequel called “Monsters University”) who shows up eager to get to work as a Scarer of young children. But when he arrives, he’s informed that all his training and high marks are — as of the previous day — obsolete. Through some inadvertent bureaucratic kindness, he’s not fired, just remanded to the Monsters, Inc. Facilities Team (MIFT).
The quirky monster janitors he finds there — Fritz (Henry Winkler), annoying co-worker Val (Mindy Kaling) and ambitious underling Duncan (Lucas Neff) — want to be like a family to their new coworker. Tylor, however, thinks his academic pedigree makes him too good for them (much is made of Val having dropped out of Monsters University). Meanwhile, Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) have been put in charge of the whole company, now that Waternoose is headed to prison, and they’re scrambling to realign everybody’s jobs from scary to funny with the help of the facilities team.
It’s not a terrible premise for a show — the joke setups are easy, since the monsters’ job is to make kids laugh. But with Tylor at its center, this seems to be a show about the quest for job satisfaction, which is at odds with the moral of the original film: that it’s more important to do the right thing than to do what you’re told.
Even weirder than the various three- and four-eyed supporting cast is the whiff of Tim Allen-style conservatism lingering around a property that is unmistakably about the corporate greed that caused the California energy crisis. The animation is seamless and the cast of all-stars gives everybody a distinctive personality, especially Neff’s Duncan; the monstery jokes are still fun (after dropping out of school, Val took a year to find herself in “The Scaribbean”). But we’re supposed to laugh at Duncan for having an emotional support animal, shrug off Mike promoting his girlfriend and find Fritz’s devotion to janitorial work endearing.
Having worked some crummy jobs in my time, I can tell you that while coworkers do often make them bearable, it isn’t because they cloyingly insist on being treated like family or convince us that we really are making the world a slightly better place by moving furniture or mounting cabinets. There are definitely people in every walk of life who attempt those things, of course, but my advice is to flee screaming from them, even if they don’t have scales, fins and six arms.
Good coworkers in bad jobs make drudgery bearable by goofing off, finding the best places to eat lunch, annoying each other for sport and teaching the newbies how to navigate the hoops and hurdles between a clogged toilet and a paycheck. They pick up shifts when colleagues unexpectedly don’t have child care and stand up to their bosses on each other’s behalf.
And, again, there are lots of good television shows about this dynamic: British TV network Channel 4 had “The IT Crowd,” a sitcom about the peons in the IT department at a big company that perfectly captured the imbalance of power between the goof-offs at the bottom and the psychos at the top; ABC’s “Better Off Ted” got the struggle of middle managers choosing between evil and slightly-less-evil; and NBC’s “The Office” nailed the way terrible bosses can also be OK — or at least sympathetic — while fun coworkers can be weirdos you’d prefer not to spend time with.
The glorification of work is baked into the pie at Disney and Pixar, which have produced an unseemly amount of art for children about the ineffable wonderment of labor (Brad Bird’s “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles” and its sequel come to mind). It’s worth noting that the new show is produced entirely by Disney Animation, however, rather than Pixar. Without the original team, it seems, the reworked property is much more interested in all the ways a big corporation can have a heart of gold.
One of the most daring ideas in “Monsters, Inc.” was that go-team corporate culture always turns a blind eye to profitable malfeasance. It’s a feature, not a bug. “Monsters at Work” invites us to tut knowingly at Tylor’s callow belief that he’s better than his co-workers at the Monsters, Inc. Facilities Team because he graduated from college, but the lesson Tylor seems about to learn is that they, too, are a vital part of the force that makes Monsters, Inc. such a special place. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that exact lecture from someone who was about to lay me off.
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