The '90s and early '00s saw a few beloved Disney animated movies get spun off into television shows that also served as sequels. In Aladdin, the titular hero, Jasmine, and the rest of the gang went on adventures around Agrabah. In 101 Dalmatians, viewers could follow up on Roger and Anita's decision to adopt the extra 84 puppies they brought home. And in The Emperor's New School, Kuzco attempted to graduate from Kuzco Academy in order to gain his position as emperor. However, in the many years since, that trend has cooled considerably (with the exception of Big Hero 6, which just completed its three-season run earlier this year). But things may just be heating up again, with Monsters at Work, which is premiering next month, 20 years after the original Monsters, Inc. was released in theaters.
Produced by Disney Television Animation (instead of Pixar, who produced the original film), the 10-episode animated Disney+ series is a direct sequel to the original, with the show's story picking up almost immediately after the 2001 movie ends, with Mike and Sulley left in charge of the whole company now that it's ditching scare power and transitioning over to laughter as a form of energy. Running parallel to their attempts at keeping the power plant (and Monstropolis at large) running, is the story of Tylor Tuskmon (voiced by Superstore's Ben Feldman), a recent graduate of Monsters University who shows up to his first day of work, only to realize his skills as a Scarer are no longer required, leaving him to be re-assigned to the Monsters, Inc. Facilities Team (MIFT), as he dreams and attempts to learn how to be a Jokester.
"We wanted to make sure that Mike and Sulley were part of the show because you can't have Monsters, Inc. without Mike and Sulley, but we were also really excited about creating this new cast of characters with Tylor and the other members of MIFT," Supervising Director Steve Anderson tells SYFY WIRE about translating the movie into a serialized TV show. "One thing I really loved about Monsters at Work is that you can really get more into the details of the characters. We have the overarching problem in Monstropolis and with Monsters, Inc. But then we also have the emotional, intimate story with Tylor. So some of the episodes can be macro and deal more with that world problem, and then others can be more intimate. The stakes in some of the episodes are 'Tylor's self-esteem,' something smaller and emotional."
As Monsters at Work viewers will quickly discover, the look and feel of the characters and the world match that of both the original and the 2013 sequel, Monsters University. Furthermore, all of the original voice actors are back reprising their roles, including Billy Crystal as Mike, and John Goodman as Sulley.
"The most important thing for me about Monsters at Work is to make sure that we're taking the audience back to the place they love," explains Executive Producer Bobs Gannaway. "So it needs to look like that place, and the characters need to look like they looked like, and they need to sound like they sounded. So that's why we're so thrilled to have Billy and John back as Mike and Sulley, because just to be honest, that makes it them... If I'm saying, 'Come back to Monsters, Inc. and spend time with your friends,' they better look and sound like them."
The series certainly captures the feeling and charm of the previous movies, with some scenes feeling like throwbacks to moments from the films. But those are blended with the comedic sensibilities of a workplace sitcom, as Tylor attempts to get promoted by attending Mike's comedy classes. Of course, he's also still learning how to do the job he's been hired to do with MIFT, and getting to know co-workers he didn't expect to be paired with. This storyline allows the world of the show to expand as viewers are introduced to new areas of the plant, namely the basement where the MIFT office is located.
Making up the MIFT team are Fritz (Scoob!'s Henry Winkler), Tylor's jovial but scatterbrained new supervisor; the ever-practical Cutter (Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts' Alana Ubach); Val (Inside Out's Mindy Kaling), who enthusiastically takes Tylor under her
wing big furry horseshoe-shaped limb; and Duncan (Big Hero 6: The Series' Lucas Neff), who sees Tylor as his main competition, and so is always thinking of ways to sabotage him.
"I really tried to think about what makes a fun ensemble in a classic way. And one thing that you find in most ensembles is a center that the other characters can gravitate around. And that is Fritz, who's played by Henry Winkler," says Gannaway of how they approached developing the team. "We've got to have the union gal who's been there forever, and knows where all the bodies are buried. And Alanna Ubach plays Cutter, who does just a fantastic job of that character. You feel like she knows everything. She's a little strict, but I bet she parties after work. And then Duncan P. Anderson. We just needed that character [whose] dream is middle-management. He does not want to be so in charge he has any real responsibility. He just wants to be able to control a few people."
Gannaway adds that Val is the one who is determined to bring the team together. "Something that is not revealed in the show is her [full] name is Val Little. [She] was adopted and raised by a bunch of little monsters. We were going to do an episode about that and we never did, but the idea is that she's this big character, but she's very dextrous, and the reason is it's because she was raised by little monsters. So she had to tie her little brother's shoes and things like that. But because she was adopted, she has this desire to want to keep people close."
In terms of the character designs, Gannaway says that Pixar shared development art for both Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University that the creative team went through as part of their own development process. And while Duncan's design was based on some original concept drawings that they saw, much of what populates the world of Monsters at Work are newer designs.
"We wanted it to feel like the world, but not copy it," explains Gannaway. "The one thing that was really important to me was if you look at them as silhouettes, you immediately know who they are. So Tylor has these horns to go out way far... Val is your horseshoe... Duncan has four eyes... And Fritz is this lovely pear shape... It's super important that when you design the group, you're not only thinking about personalities, but how do their shapes interact and how are they all very identifiable."
For fans looking for Easter eggs or references to other Disney or Pixar properties within the series, don't get your hopes too high up. While there are a few, most nods within the series are directed towards the previous two films so as to ensure consistency between the movies and the show.
"There's a couple of little things like that, but not too many things," explains Anderson. "We tried to keep it more concentrated to the world of Monsters, Inc. Like references being more from the different movies as opposed to other properties, just to be as respectful to that world that Pixar created as possible."
So far, there are only 10 episodes of Monsters at Work that have been produced. But they tell a full story — not unlike Marvel's recent spate of shows at Disney+, like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki.
"There is definitely an arc to the 10 episodes. It's not all episodic where it's just different unrelated episodes. There is an overarching story that we're telling by Tylor," says Anderson. "We definitely do build to something. And there will be a nice satisfying punctuation mark for the story."
Monsters at Work premieres July 7 on Disney+ with two new episodes, followed by one new episode each week.