THE STORY – Leo the Lizard has been stuck in the same Florida school for decades. When he learns he only has one year left to live, he plans to escape to freedom but instead has to rescue his class from their horribly mean substitute teacher.
THE CAST – Adam Sandler, Bill Burr & Cecily Strong
THE TEAM – Robert Smigel (Director/Writer), Robert Marianetti, David Wachtenheim (Directors), Adam Sandler & Paul Sado (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 102 Minutes
Adam Sandler found major success in the animated film world with “Hotel Transylvania,” one of the few family-friendly films in his filmography. Sure, he’s done less-risque films, like “Grown Ups” or “Big Daddy,” but the “Hotel Transylvania” franchise is one of his rare moments of producing true kid-friendly material. Watching his latest animated starring film “Leo,” it’s clear the movie was birthed out of wanting a new story for older kids who might not be ready for the likes of “Happy Gilmore” and “The Waterboy” to enjoy. The filmmakers’ hearts are in the right place, with a sweet message for middle schoolers about anxiety and the most awkward years of their lives. Well-intended as “Leo” may be, the result is a story too thin to sustain 100 minutes that is too dumbed down for adults and bland for kids.
In his third(!!) film for Netflix in 2023, Adam Sandler plays Leo, a geriatric lizard living as a class pet alongside his turtle friend Squirtle (Bill Burr). It’s a dull life, watching kids parade in through the years, and Leo and Squirtle have basically memorized how everything goes down in the fifth grade. One day, Leo learns that lizards of his variety live to be about 75 years old. He realizes that he’s been a class pet since 1949, which makes him (according to the math of a pet rabbit from a nearby classroom) 74 years old. Knocking on death’s door, Leo decides it’s time for him to break free and live life in the wild. However, his plans are immediately thwarted by an overly strict substitute teacher, Mrs. Malkin (Cecily Strong), who forces the kids to take turns taking the pets home.
Summer (Sunny Sandler) is the first kid to bring Leo home. Summer’s got a problem: she talks too much. No one likes to be around her because she dominates the conversation. Equally frustrated with her, Leo realizes a new purpose for his life: to get these kids the help they so desperately need to navigate some tough times. Leo largely dispenses valuable life advice to the children (oh, he can talk too, apparently) through song, being painfully honest with the kids in a way their parents can’t seem to be. With each new kid who brings Leo home, he quickly identifies their insecurity and works to help them through it.
Quickly, “Leo” turns into an episodic exercise. Classroom, kid, song. Classroom, kid, song. The structure doesn’t lend itself to any narrative momentum, leaving the viewer with little to invest in. In and of itself, his wouldn’t be such a problem if the humor were more consistent. There are certainly some hilarious moments, like repeatedly showing the kindergarteners as little piranha-like humanoids that any parent can recognize. On the whole, the film just isn’t very funny. It finds itself stuck in a middle ground of trying to appeal to adults with toned-down Sandler-esque humor (like Leo and Squirtle doing observational bits about the classroom like they’re Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets) or physical comedy that gets old quickly (like Leo getting caught in a Roomba). When the jokes aren’t working, going from kid to kid helping them with their problems becomes repetitive.
On the bright side, the animation is vibrant and colorful, taking advantage of the bright Florida sunshine in which the movie is set. It has the soft edges of an Illumination picture but takes on its own sort of style for the human characters. It’s nothing revolutionary but competent and enjoyable to look at. As a musical, though, “Leo” leaves much to be desired. Each song is meant to help the kids work through their individual struggles, but in trying to be both meaningful and funny, they ultimately achieve neither. The songs are rudimentary, Broadway-esque numbers with the most basic melodies and rhyming schemes, or worse, they’re just too childish to be interesting. “We all have problems, so boo-freakin-hoo” and “don’t cry, it’s really annoying” demonstrate the underwhelming lyricism.
Who didn’t have awkward elementary and middle school years? It’s right for “Leo” to try and tackle the difficulty of walking through this time in a kid’s life. Perhaps some kids will watch “Leo” and take away some important lessons. If so, this will have been a valuable venture. Admirable goals aside, the movie just doesn’t work well enough for the life lessons to be worthwhile.