In the prehistoric era known as the 1990s and 2000s, Disney regularly pumped out dozens of cheaply made, often bizarrely plotted, straight-to-VHS and then straight-to-DVD sequels to their theatrical animated hits. Movies such as “Beauty and the Beast: Belle’s Magical World,” “Hercules: Zero to Hero,” “Stitch! The Movie” and even “The Lion King 1½,” which features Timon and Pumbaa watching the original movie and fast-forwarding to their featured scenes, I kid you not. (Timon has a remote control. Don’t ask.)
Concerns about watering down the brand led to Disney wisely abandoning the practice in 2008 — and in the modern era, when a sequel is released under the Disney and/or Pixar banner, it’s a quality effort such as “Ralph Breaks the Internet” or “Frozen II.” Or “Monsters University,” the 2013 prequel follow-up to “Monsters, Inc.,” the 2001 smash hit about the adorable “scary” creatures who live in Monstropolis, a city powered by the energy generated from the screams of small humans.
The good news about the straight-to-streaming sequel series “Monsters at Work” is that the 25-minute episodes come reasonably close to the colorful, layered, eye-popping visuals of the theatrical releases — plus we get the return of the comfort-audio warmth of John Goodman voicing Sulley and Billy Crystal as Mike. Twenty years after the original, these two monsters haven’t aged a day! They’re as animated as ever, pardon the dad joke.
First things first: If you and the kids haven’t watched “Monsters, Inc.,” you should check that out first before diving into “Monsters at Work,” as the series picks up in the immediate aftermath of the first film, when (retroactive spoiler alert!) the monsters have learned children’s laughter is actually far more powerful than screams, and Monsters, Inc. will be retooled to harvest chuckles, giggles and guffaws.
But as is the case with any company where sweeping changes occur overnight, the overall mood at Monsters, Inc. is one of: HOW WILL THIS AFFECT ME???
“Do I still have a job?” wonders one pink monster in a hard hat, while a yellow fella with two periscope eyeballs frets, “Can laugh energy power cars and warm homes and light the city?” and then adds, “But I don’t want things to change.” (How many times has THAT refrain been heard in a workplace?)
Goodman’s Sully and Crystal’s Mike are now in charge of the company, and while we see quite a bit of them, they’re really supporting players in a new story thread that features newly minted Monsters University graduate Tylor Tuskmon (Ben Feldman), a purple behemoth with horns that stretch forever. Tylor was the top scarer in his class and one of the greatest students in the history of the school — but when he arrives at Monsters, Inc. for his first day on the job, he learns the company is dropping the slogan “We Scare Because We Care” in favor of going for the laughs.
This is a problem, as Tylor isn’t particularly funny. At least not intentionally.
“Monsters at Work” rapidly transitions into an animated workplace comedy, as the overwhelmed and underqualified Tylor is assigned to the Monsters, Inc. Facilities Team (MIFT), the “monsters behind the monsters” who are relegated to a dark corner of the operation and are tasked with maintenance and repairs of the intricate machinery. The invaluable Henry Winkler is wonderful voicing Fritz, the lovable and slightly daffy head of MIFT, who explains to Tylor, “No matter how arduous the task, or difficult the repair might be, MIFT is there to tighten the bolts, unclog the pipes, wrench the nut!” Other members of the MIFT team include the exceedingly chipper Val (Mindy Kaling, who knows a thing or two about workplace comedies) and the scheming suck-up Duncan (Lucas Neff), who has a nameplate saying he’s the “Official Assistant Supervisor” (shades of Dwight Schrute) and thinks Tylor is after his job. Tylor keeps protesting that this is just a temporary assignment and he’ll soon be moving on, but as we know from so many office comedies, leaving is a lot easier dreamt than done.
Meanwhile, Mike is working 18-hour shifts generating laughs to keep the power running and teaching comedy classes on his lunch hour, with Sulley plying him with coffee in the “Laffateria” and a co-worker tossing Mike a bottle of “36½ Hour Energy” drink to keep him going. As we said: workplace comedy. The players just happen to be furry monsters with anywhere from one to four eyes.
“Monsters at Work” isn’t on the same level as the two feature films, but it’s miles ahead of the likes of “The Return of Jafar” or “Kronk’s New Groove.”