Adam Sandler's newest film Leo is a heart-warming story about growing up, acceptance, and finding your purpose–lessons that even a 74 year-old lizard needs to learn.
It's a new school year and longtime fifth grade class pets Leo (Adam Sandler) and Squirtle (Bill Burr) watch as the class files in. In his 74 years, Leo has seen it all and never really dreams of life outside the tank, that is until he realizes that he may be at the end of his lifespan. A lizard-life crisis takes over and Leo is determined to escape the classroom and live out his life free from the cage. He gets his chance when the slightly frightening Mrs. Malkin (Cecily Strong) takes over the class as long-term sub who revives the old school practice of having a child take a pet home on the weekends to teach them responsibility. Just as Leo finds himself inches from freedom, he realizes he can help these children with all the wisdom he has gathered from his place behind the glass.
Leo is a heart-warming story about growing up, acceptance, and finding your purpose. These are lessons not only for children but adults too, as evidenced by the fact that even a wizened 74 year-old lizard still has something to learn about life. It's also funny, from the zany one-liners to the physical comedy, Sandler along with co-writers Robert Smigel and Paul Sado deliver something the whole family can laugh out without veering into Billy Madison humor. This film also happens to be a musical, with songs sprinkled throughout to add to the storyline and also to lend to the gags. Leo pokes fun at the traditional formula for children's films while still remaining tenderhearted and mostly adhering to the structure of the genre.
At its heart, Leo hits the beats of familiar animation tropes while also managing to freshen things up, subverting the norm. Rather than Leo getting free to wander the world, he ends up finding his dreams where he least suspected them. Instead of only one special kid being able to hear Leo, it is revealed everyone can hear him if he chooses to talk. This structure is the beating heart of the film– instead of finding adventure in the unknown, Leo is treated to new personalities, locations, and obstacles each weekend. We get to follow along as he learns more about the children he and Squirtle judged on the first day of school. The children and the audience are charmed by Sandler's growly voice delivering solid grandfatherly advice to these young tweens. From helping one kid learn to listen to others to flat out telling another that just because they are rich doesn't make them all that great. His advice is straightforward and sometimes can seem a little harsh, but kids are resilient and sometimes the truth shouldn't be sugar coated.
Sandler, Sado, and Smigel nail the balance between Sandler's inner child and his actual adult self in ways we haven't seen since the original Hotel Transylvania. Part of its charm is just how silly and funny it is. Sandler and Burr make for a pair we didn't know we needed, while the younger voice cast throws their hearts into their characters. Directors, TV Funhouse vets David Wachtenheim and Robert Marianetti, as well as Smigel also know how to make the most out of visual gags. From the helicopter parent drone to every time Leo freezes randomly when surprised, the laughs come easily. They even show that though this is a musical they also know how ridiculous musicals can seem when you aren't the one singing. For instance, in one scene when someone begins to sing the camera cuts to another room in the house where the song can be heard, albeit muffled. Almost like a cheeky little oh you're singing? Random. But okay I guess. The Leo team also didn't feel the need to give Leo magical abilities or a detailed backstory about why he can speak. It's just an accepted fact. And if any does wonder why he hasn't spoken sooner, he warns the children no one can know, otherwise someone will “try to kill him, like E.T.”
The animation choices also solidify that these directors know how to get the most out of the genre. The drone which hovers along, protecting its student until that child decides he has suffered enough equals some of the biggest laughs. We all chuckled when it began acting depressed in a human way, unfortunately robots can't have ice-cream, but they can beep boop despondently. Then there are the big headed, psychotic looking kindergarteners which based on interviews, Sandler said were designed from the original drawings he made while roughing out the story. Every time these mini creepy goblins pop up mayhem ensues, which leads to even more giggles. The other children, adults, and animals are all animated in the current “norm” but these little extra zany touches are what make Leo visually and hysterically pop.
Physical comedy and some rude humor aside, Leo is truly heart-warming, more so than anyone would likely expect from a Happy Madison production. It works to diligently give not just the titular lizard but each character a well-rounded arc. Every child and adult learns something from Leo and Leo in turn learns something from them. It's charming, sweet, and light despite some of the heavier topics it navigates.
Ultimately, Leo is a funny, zany, and sweet animated story that is bolstered by Sandler and Burr's voice work and hysterical animation choices. It's one the whole family can sit down and enjoy together without any cringing, well maybe a little, but hey turtles make babies too just not the way we do.
Leo is now streaming on Netflix. It is rated PG for rude/suggestive material and some language with a runtime of 102 minutes.