Monsters At Work review: Pixar show is all horror and humour, froth and fright
Pixar is now walking the Marvel path of extending its IP into the web-series format. And the result is a kind, chirpy, endearing show in Monsters At Work.
There is something philosophically compelling about the Monsters Inc universe — a belief that, perhaps, fear and humour are closer than we think they are.
That you can spend your whole life trying to pursue fear as a profession, but when in Monstropolis, “scarers” are no longer needed, replaced by “jokesters," you can also, with swift intention, train yourself to refashion your jump scares as punch lines. Why else would the clown be so divisive, considered both a figure of fun and fear? Why else do froth and fright pair so well in the horror-comedy genre, where the laughs ease our defensive responses, only to make the horror more unexpected, more persuasive?
Developed by Bob Gannaway, Monsters At Work refashions this idea, which began with Pixar Animation’s Monsters Inc, in a web-show format — 10 episodes, 20 minutes each. Monstropolis’ Monsters Inc, whose tagline was “We scare because we care” has now been overhauled, its space repurposed to tickle instead of terrify, “It’s laughter We’re After”.
The people in charge — the level headed Sulley (John Goodman) and the mischief monger Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), remnants of the Monsters Inc movies — are trying to power Monstropolis with “laugh power," which means trying to get kids to “giggle, chortle, guffaw, tee-hee”, with each laughter producing enough energy to keep the city running.
Tylor Tuskmon, tall, broad, deep purple with horizontal antlers, emerald eyes, gets an invite to be a “scarer” at Monsters Inc but by the time he arrives, the overhaul has taken place, and the scarers are now replaced with jokesters. “The simple physics of physical comedy” — his horns, and things hanging from it like a coat-hanger is supposed to make him perfect for the job. But, somehow, it does not work. He does not have the natural “talent," and so must persevere instead because he must figure out a way to humour himself into the honoured position of a jokester. The 10-episodes is his odyssey — to see if he can make the leap from scarer to jokester, to see if he wants to make the leap from scarer to jokester. He holds the key to the question of the humour-horror proximity. Are they really that close?
In the interim, he works at MIFT (Monsters Inc Facilities Team) in charge of maintenance — “If a part breaks, we fix it. If a machine needs maintenance, we maintain it.” His kind, imposing boss Fritz (Henry Winkler), and his bubbly, dove-eyed colleague Val (Mindy Kaling), the crab-like cutting Cutter (Alanna Ubach), and the always suspicious, always scheming Duncan (Lucas Neff) are among the oddballs that he first resists, thinking himself to be better, deserving of better, only to grow to love and fight for them later on.
Tylor is, thus, the protagonist, which means he is not just given the arc of morality in most episodes — where he gets to realise the inner goodness — but over the episodes, he is also given the arc of introspection — if he wants to be a jokester or a MIFT-er. It is this confusion that is not as well-etched and nuanced as it should have been. To burden a character with so much metamorphosis, the show chooses to not give him the exaggerated mannerisms it gives everyone around him. What this means is that he is thus largely devoid of personality.
Personality in Monsters Inc is usually one-dimensional — this is not a criticism, it is a characterisation.
The first two episodes go in setting up this tectonic shift — from horror to humour — but also in setting up the eccentricities of the various new characters. It is only by the end of the third episode that we finally get the emotions that rev the show, when these exaggerated characters finally get not just our laughs, but our sympathy too. It is in this episode we finally have Val express what it is that made her fall in love with Tylor. We also get Mike to express his affection for someone other than him. The court jester has a heart! From here, it is smooth sailing, and more eww-detail-laden world-building — stale air , rot dogs, snot candy, drool cola, Vincent Van Gross, Claw Monet, etc.
It has been noted that with Monsters At Work, Pixar is now walking the Marvel path of extending the life of its IP in the web-series format. Creativity is more valued in the extension of existing stories than in the creation of new ones. As Alan Sepinall noted in Rolling Stone, from 1995 to 2009, Pixar released one sequel to a previous film, but from 2010 on, Pixar has released seven different sequels or prequels. Whatever the intentions — capitalising on nostalgia, commercial insecurity about creating new IP — if the outcome is a kind, chirpy, endearing Monsters At Work, maybe the anxieties are worth bearing.
Monsters At Work is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.
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