‘Monsters at Work’: Showrunner Bobs Gannaway and Star Ben Feldman on Reviving Pixar’s Hit Franchise for Disney Plus

Disney Plus Monsters at Work
Pixar/Disney Plus

Two decades after the wonderfully zippy, goofy “Monsters, Inc.” was released in theaters, Pixar is bringing back Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan for another adventure. The upcoming television series “Monsters at Work,” which premieres July 7 on Disney Plus, picks up where “Monsters, Inc.” left off, with CEO Henry J. Waternoose headed for the slammer, children deemed non-toxic, and laugh energy replacing the suddenly outmoded scream energy.

In reviving the beloved characters, voiced by Billy Crystal and John Goodman, showrunner Bobs Gannaway looked to expand the existing world with a new set of characters, among them Tylor Tuskmon (Ben Feldman), Val Little (Mindy Kaling) and Fritz (Henry Winkler). Tylor joins the company right out of Monsters University expecting to start work as a scarer, only to find out that the legendary energy company is scrambling to re-strategize. He’s instead assigned to MIFT, the Monsters Inc. Facilities Team, an oddball crew of characters who have the less glamorous position of wrenching nuts and fixing doors.

“The first idea that I was working with Pixar on was the idea of the monsters behind the monsters — these are the monsters that take care of Monsters Incorporated,” Gannaway told Variety. “Everything we’ve seen in Monsters Inc. so far is sort of the out-facing areas: the rotunda, the laugh floor. But what happens when you get in an elevator and go down to the basement? Who’s down there?”

Gannaway is no stranger to adapting classic Disney movies, having worked on series adaptations of “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Lilo & Stitch,” “101 Dalmatians,” “Timon & Pumbaa,” and others. In reflecting on the last three-and-a-half years spent working on the series, Gannaway said that it took a while to come to what seems like an “obvious idea,” but “great stories happen when there’s a big change in the world, and there’s big change in this world right now.”

“So this idea of having a character who has idolized Sulley, who went to Monsters University to major in scaring, and then the day he graduates, the universe sort of has thrown him a curveball — and he’s going to have to adapt — seemed like a fun way in to a character that you can empathize with,” he added.

For Feldman, who was also filming the final season of NBC’s “Superstore” at the same time, playing Tylor meant leaving one long-running workplace comedy and jumping right into another. Much like his “Superstore” character Jonah, who in the pilot found himself working in retail after dropping out of business school, “Monsters at Work’s” Tylor has a hard time grappling with his new professional environment, and has to confront his own elitist streak.

“I was really lucky to have the similarities between Jonah and Tylor, because there was like a portion of my brain that didn’t have to struggle to catch up with the story and find a way in to connect,” said Feldman, quipping, “I could use that to kind of make sure that I wasn’t destroying this iconic franchise.”

He recorded a few scenes with Winkler in person until the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, forcing Feldman to record his lines with a Disney-provided microphone in his basement until the studio could safely reopen. And the switch from on-screen acting to voice work meant that he had to bring the energy.

“Voice acting during COVID was a unique experience for all of us this particular season,” said Feldman. “You’re in a room alone. You’re 100% of the energy and the people that you’re talking to are not actors. They’re producers or writers or directors — and in our case, on Zoom, and I’m alone in the studio with a robot mic.”

A number of iconic “Monsters, Inc.” characters have been revived, including Jennifer Tilly’s Celia Mae, Bob Peterson’s Roz, and Smitty and Needleman (previously voiced by the late Daniel Gerson and now voiced by Stephen Stanton). Expect John Ratzenberger to reprise his role as Yeti, as well.

“Billy Crystal just dropped right in like a day hadn’t passed since he did the last one and had a great time again continuing the story, and John Goodman as well,” said Gannaway. “They both very much love the idea. If you watch the pilot, when they’re told they’re going to be taking over Monsters, Inc., there’s an immediate reaction of like, weight of the world on Sulley. And Mike is already thinking about possible perks. So it’s fun writing for existing characters.”

Gannaway sought to balance out the ensemble from the original films with the newer group, like Kaling’s Val, a free spirit who attended one class (the “Origin of Fear”) with Tylor before dropping out of college shortly after.

“She’s just a great, energetic positive character to have down in the underbelly of Monsters, Inc,” he said. Lucas Neff’s Duncan “dreams of middle management and always feels threatened by any newcomer” and Alanna Ubach’s Cutter is “a character that knows where all the bodies are buried.”

Tylor’s story is “almost a love story to a certain extent, where a character is brought into a world, and there’s something he thinks he wants, but then he meets this new group of people and starts questioning his choice,” said Gannaway. “So we were really focusing on Tyler’s journey and his arc from, ‘I think this is what I want. But when I’m presented with a new group of people, do I still want what I used to want?’”

“Monsters at Work” premieres on Disney Plus on July 7.