Review by James Lindorf
Adam Sandler is no stranger to family films, with the majority of his filmography rated PG-13 or below. He is also familiar with animated films with “Eight Crazy Nights” and the highly successful Hotel Transylvania franchise under his belt. His record-breaking deal with Netflix continues to churn out movies that range from the terrible “Ridiculous Six,” to the not-great but highly entertaining “Hubie Halloween,” to the critically acclaimed “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah.” The latest joint project for the streamer and Sandler is the animated film “Leo,” which opened in a limited number of theaters on November 17th before joining the Netflix catalog on the 21st.
Summer is over, and it is time for a new group of fifth graders to enter the Florida classroom where grumpy lizard Leo (Sandler) has lived for decades with his terrarium-mate Squirtle the turtle (Bill Burr). What starts as just another year for Leo spirals out of control when he overhears a conversation on parent-teacher night and learns his expected lifespan is 75 years. That lifespan sounds like a good deal until he realizes he is 74, and this could be his last school year and last chance to achieve his dreams. Leo has grand plans of a “Mission Impossible” style escape when he is taken home for the weekend, but his anxious students continue to foil his plans. Leo may not achieve his dreams with an expanding list of “special” friends, a nightmare of a substitute teacher, demanding parents, and an overprotective drone. However, it may still be the best school year ever.
“Leo” features many returning Happy Madison collaborators in front of and behind the camera. I am convinced that if you weren’t going to be an A or maybe even B-list star in Hollywood over the last 30+ years, the best thing you could do is become friends with Adam Sandler. Three former SNL colleagues, Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, and David Wachtenheim, were brought into direct “Leo,” with Smigel joining Sandler and Paul Sado (Hubie Halloween) in the writer’s room. In front of the camera, or at least in the recording booth, returning actors include Rob Schneider, Heidi Gardner (Hustle), and Sandler’s wife Jackie and their teen daughters Sadie and Sunny, who starred in “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah.” Newcomers include sitcom icon Jason Alexander, standup comedians Bill Burr and Jo Koy, and SNL alum Cecily Strong. Most of the child actors in the movie give surprisingly good performances. At the same time, many adults mostly do what they are known for. Cecily Strong and Jo Koy easily provide the best performances among the adults, playing a bit off-type and affecting a voice, which some couldn’t be bothered to do.
The 3D animation in “Leo” is very good. It doesn’t do anything to separate itself from the crowd like the Spider-verse movies, but it is a high-quality theater theater-worthy production. The way Leo finds ways to bond with the kids feels both heartwarming and accurate. None of the problems are over the top or silly. While they may not seem earth-shattering from the outside, anyone who can remember being a pre-teen/teen can remember how all-encompassing they could feel. Whatever role parenting experience or being capable of tapping into their inner child plays, Sandler, Smigel, and Sado, a group ranging from mid-forties to mid-sixties, should be commended for crafting accurate and emotional problems for the 5th graders.
The strangest problem with “Leo” is that it isn’t clear precisely who its intended audience was. Its blend of coming-of-age and existential crisis plotlines is too much to balance in its 105-minute runtime. The film is at its best when Leo interacts with the kids, and that is where its focus should have remained. I don’t think Sandler’s old man voice will have great appeal for the youngest family members, or anyone really, but they should get plenty of laughs from the pee and butt-crack jokes. “Leo” probably works best for kids around middle school age, like the children in Leo’s class and their parents. They are most likely to be the viewers struggling with a sense of identity, and in between the jokes and uninspired musical numbers, “Leo” offers some surprising sage advice. “Leo” is breezy fun, perfect for a post-thanksgiving meal that might strike a chord with the right viewers, and for that, it earns a 3.5 out of 5.
Genre: Kids & family, Musical, Comedy, Animation
Original Language: English
Director: Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, David Wachtenheim
Producer: Adam Sandler
Release Date (Theaters): November 17th, 2023
Release Date (Streaming): November 21st, 2023
Runtime: 1h 45m
Production Co: Netflix, Happy Madison Productions
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