Film Review – Leo
The Adam Sandler and Netflix train keeps on chugging, this time with the animated family film, Leo (2023). Just like a previous foray into animation – Eight Crazy Nights (2002) – this latest outing attempts to balance the crude humor Sandler has long been known for, along with a wholesomeness that can adhere to anyone of any age. The result, at least with this latest release, is an odd blend that doesn’t quite hold together. It certainly has its heart in the right place, even though the messaging is a little convoluted. This is like that older relative that tries to bestow life advice upon you, but they jumble the words, leaving you feeling confused.
With a whole team of writers (Sandler, Robert Smigel, Paul Sado) and codirectors (Smigel, Robert Marianetti, David Wachtenheim) the story centers around a fifth-grade classroom in Florida. Inside the classroom is a terrarium housing a turtle named Squirtle (Bill Burr), and a 74-year-old lizard named Leo (Sandler). The years roll by with monotonous routine for Squirtle and Leo, as they watch each group of fifth graders deal with graduating from elementary school. However, when we meet them, Leo is going through an existential crisis. Convinced that he does not have much time to live, Leo decides to break out and see the world. This plan proves to be difficult when the class substitute teacher, Ms. Malkin (Cecily Strong) assigns each kid to take Leo home to learn how to be responsible.
The narrative is structured into a series of episodes, where Leo meets each kid and learns about them. In classic animated fantasy tradition, Leo can somehow verbally communicate with the kids (This is never explained, the movie assumes we’ll just go along with it). With each child he meets, he learns about their hopes and dreams, about their fears of growing up, and the secrets they don’t want anybody to know. In return, Leo provides some helpful assistance, giving them tips on how to manage their feelings and fit in better at school.
On paper, Leo is earnest enough, touching on themes of individuality, empathy, and learning to be confident in one’s own skin. In practice, however, the writing isn’t savvy enough to get the point across. Jayda (Sadie Sandler) is a spoiled rich kid who gets everything she wants. In an attempt to teach her humility, Leo tells her that her parents – especially her dad (Jason Alexander) – are not that great. While the effort may come from a good place, telling someone that their parents “aren’t great” doesn’t sound like constructive counseling. The same goes for Summer (Sunny Sandler) whose chatty personality causes others to zone out. Leo advises Summer to stop talking and start asking questions, but instead of using that knowledge to learn about her classmates, Summer uses it to fit in with the popular kids. Is Leo really helping or hurting the kids’ social interactions?
The film does have its funny moments, such as the back and forth between Squirtle and Leo. Bill Burr and Adam Sandler make a dynamic duo, as their characters constantly jab at one another. The reptiles are clearly best friends, but they can get on each other’s nerves. As more kids pick Leo to take home, the jealousy and resentment starts to boil inside of Squirtle. It’s the classic “Odd Couple” dynamic – if there was a movie that was just about the two of them bickering constantly, I would be interested in that. Of course, a lot of the comedic bits reside below the belt, including a running gag about where each one should leave their “natural waste.” Regardless, I dug this partnership despite the poop and pee jokes.
In terms of animation, the design is brightly colored, but relatively generic. Leo and Squirtle look like your everyday pet animals, the kids look like generic animated characters, and the environments evoke Florida without giving a sense of what it’s like to live there. The animation works best when the material dives into truly bizarre sequences. In one scene, Leo stumbles his way onto a model city made of building blocks. The slow motion makes it seem like Leo was Godzilla rampaging through skyscrapers. During a fantasy sequence, a character performs a song and dance number with an army of human-sized clocks. When the number ends, the clocks hang around as though they were paid performers finishing up a gig. The biggest laughs come from a drone whose sole purpose is to help a kid with various allergies. The way the drone silently displays its feelings through gestures has the same effect as an old silent comedy.
By the way, did I mention this was a musical? I went this far without saying it because frankly, the music is forgettable. From the lyrics, melodies, vocal performances, to visual representation, none of the musical scenes hit with positive effect. Part of the reason is that the numbers are often too short, not giving the songs enough opportunity to stick in our brains. Other times, the flow is clumsy and stilted. Songs come and go so quickly that it almost feels arbitrary. I guess this is meant to represent the awkward stage of the kids’ lives, but on screen they land with a dud.
Leo does have a lot of positives going for it, but a lot of negatives as well. It sits in that weird gray area between satire and sincerity, between sweet and salty. When it comes to an Adam Sandler-backed film about young people navigating their way through life, we already got a very good outing earlier this year with You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah (2023). That is a solid movie that has something insightful to say. Leo wants to be that but misses the mark by an inch.