It’s hard not to press play on any new Adam Sandler movie with a sense of skepticism, particularly when it’s yet another one tethered to his ostensibly endless, multi-year deal with Netflix. A quick look at Leo, the latest animated movie from Happy Madison Productions, and one might not be able to resist the urge to roll their eyes at Sandler’s latest attempt to target a prepubescent audience.
But if you stop and reflect on some of Sandler’s past animated ventures, be them the uniquely wacky Eight Crazy Nights or the lucrative Hotel Transylvania franchise, it’s easy to argue that Sandler’s childish, mostly immature brand of humor is modestly effective when packaged for family friendly audiences. Such is the case with Leo, a surprisingly charming story about a teacher’s (literal) pet trying to impart some wisdom on the students before his time on Earth comes to an end.
Sandler voices a 74-year-old tuatara, a unique breed of reptile, named Leo, who lives in a fifth-grade classroom alongside his turtle roommate, Squirtle (Bill Burr). Having both resided in a classroom setting for decades, they’ve seen every type of kid you can imagine, from the obnoxious bully to the chubby boy with fingers caked in Doritos dust.
One charming narrative inclusion is because Leo and Squirtle have been confined to a fifth grade class for so long, they’re not entirely sure how math works. But when Leo finds out that his species only lives for 75 years, he becomes depressed, feeling he’s not fulfilled any of his lifelong dreams. Enter a new substitute teacher named Mrs. Malkin (Cecily Strong), who mandates that every student has to take Leo home for a weekend during the school year. This could be Leo’s opportunity to escape into the wild to carry out his remaining days.
But a funny thing happens while he stays with the most talkative girl in class (voiced by Sunny Sandler, who shined in Happy Madison’s You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah earlier this year). He accidentally reveals that he can talk. With the cat out of the bag, so to speak, he tries to give her some live advice by saying that she might want to start asking other people about themselves so she won’t be seen as such a babbling outcast amongst her peers. Leo gives her this advice while promising her to keep his ability to talk a secret.
When she returns to school that Monday, the little girl realizes the tuatara is onto something! The following weekend, Leo stays with a kid whose parents have essentially bubble-wrapped his entire life due to his various allergies. The boy’s life is basically controlled by a drone that does everything for him. Leo helps the boy author a breakup letter to his drone, asking it for more autonomy in the process. Thus, Leo starts finding a purpose and the kids themselves realize the value of a great mentor in life.
Leo is a bit of a musical, but not in the conventional sense. The most inspiring thing about the songs in the film is they’re not trying to be the next radio hit. In fact, they harbor an improvisational edge to them, as if Leo himself is making up the words as he goes. Each song is no more than a minute or two, and has Leo forming the lyrics to the situations of the kids. “Don’t cry, it’s really annoying,” he tells one girl whose waterworks have a hair trigger (sidebar: the film was co-written/co-directed by Robert Smigel of “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog” fame, and his influence shows on some of the songs). “Never ate algae straight from the sea,” Leo croons at one point. “Never got nothing but lettuce, always lands in Squirtle’s pee.”
Even as the silliness of the story runs rampant, Smigel, Sandler, and fellow co-writer Paul Sado successfully ground Leo by keeping the core of the story alive. This is a film that shows bettering children starts with listening to their troubles, their anxieties, and their feelings. Frequently shown are the busy and sometimes neglectful parents of the kids, and how, once the children overcome the initial shock of a talking lizard, sharing their concerns with him becomes remarkably easy when they realize he listens and simply wants to help.
Leo‘s attractive animation style is easy to appreciate, and the film doesn’t succumb to the frequently exhausting tendencies of its counterparts where the story and ensuing hijinks move so swiftly that one feels like they need an intermission to catch their breath. This is a sweet and endearing picture that often feels like something Disney or even Pixar might’ve made. It’s a small-scale concept that proves big on several aspects that pay dividends in establishing an animated film worthy of multiple viewings.
NOTE: Leo is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.
Voiced by: Adam Sandler, Bill Burr, Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, Sadie Sandler, Sunny Sandler, Rob Schneider, Jo Koy, Allison Strong, Jackie Sandler, Heidi Gardner, Robert Smigel, and Nick Swardson. Directed by: Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, and David Wachtenheim.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!