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Laughter Through Fears: “Monsters at Work” Season 2 reviewed

At the end of the 2001 movie “Monsters, Inc.,” the titular company decides to cut ties with tradition and do away with human children’s screams as a power source in favor of laughter. It was a fun tag that put a nice bow on Sulley’s character growth after meeting the human Boo. What the movie doesn’t show is whether the larger world of Monstropolis will be open to such a drastic change to their traditions and culture. That is at the heart of Disney+’s “Monsters at Work,” which, in its second season, brought workplace existentialism and the environmental revolution to the popular Pixar franchise.

The idea of making Fear Co. a big part of the season came from “The Art of Monsters, Inc.” book. Early development for that film included ideas for various energy companies — which makes more sense than just one place powering an entire city. “What if the other companies never really got on board with laughter?” Deters explained. “Frankly, screams were profitable at that moment in time.” It’s how we get entire subplots of Mike (Billy Cyrstal) and Sulley (John Goodman) doing presentations at conventions, trying to convince a skeptical audience that laughter is, in fact, a more efficient power source than screams.

At the center of this rivalry is Tylor (Ben Feldman), who starts the season as a jokester working the main floor of Monsters Inc. For the former scarer superstar of his class at Monsters University, the job is far from what he imagined, and Season 2 mines a lot of introspection out of the existential crises Tylor experiences when he gets the opportunity to be an actual scarer at Fear Co. Deters’ experience during COVID-19 (particularly how lockdown caused many people to reconsider their career choices) inspired the storyline. What if your dream job is no longer what you thought it was? What if the company you admired drastically changed by the time you joined? And should a dream workplace come before your natural talents?

While Tylor contemplates his career options, there is sabotage at work at Monsters Inc. With this mystery came an opportunity to bring some noir film influences to the franchise, with Duncan P. Anderson (Lucas Neff) fashioning himself a bit of a detective. Episode 5 even has some black-and-white scenes, with noir-inspired use of lighting and music. “I will freely admit I was very uncertain at first about going into black and white,” Deters confessed. It wasn’t until Wermers-Skelton repeatedly encouraged him that they kept the art style. “I know it would look cool, and we worked hard to sell the spirit of noir,” the supervising director said. “We tasked our writer to watch as much film noir as she could and let it spill over the script in the lingo and Duncan’s narration.”

Though “Monsters at Work” Season 2 does bring back characters from the film — including making Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion) a main character — it mostly avoids relying too much on familiar faces. Deters equated the idea of using pre-existing characters to going over to a friend’s house and playing with their action figures: “You know they’re important, so you put them back nicely on their shelf where they were once you’re done.” Throughout the season, there are callbacks and references to Henry J. Waternoose in the sabotage plot, but rather than bring him back from prison, the final two episodes reveal that the saboteur is none other than Randall Boggs, the gecko-like monster from the first film.