Principal Cast : Adam Sandler, Bill Burr, Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, Rob Schneider, Allison Strong, Jo Koy, Sadie Sandler, Sunny Sandler, Coulter Ibanez, Bryant Tardy, Cory J, Ethan Smigel, Tieny Safko, Gloria Manning, Carson Minniear, Jayda Sandler, Roey Smigel, Heidi Gardner, Robert Smigel, Nick Swardson.
Synopsis: A 74-year-old lizard named Leo and his turtle friend decide to escape from the terrarium of a Florida school classroom where they have been living for decades.
A Sandler family production, aka Leo, a Netflix animated film in which Sandler, alongside fellow-comedian Bill Burr, plays an anthropomorphic lizard living in a middle-school terrarium with his best friend, a turtle, who learns the value of his lifetime whilst dispensing wisdom and life lessons to the disparate children in his classroom. While I won’t suggest that Leo is on par with the best of Disney or Pixar or Dreamworks, Netflix’ little musical-comedy venture is quite an enjoyable exercise despite feeling unevenly tonal, skittering between depressingly serious angst and sing-song Looney Toon antics in a way that satisfies in most ways. Keeping it from rising to the upper echelons of animated fare, however, is the film’s often lethargic pace and rhythm, a factor that turns Sandler’s emotional voice work from enthralling to merely enjoyable, and although one suspects the filmmakers were thinking of potential franchise with this, one hopes it’s a one-and-done.
Leo (Sandler) is a lizard living inside a Florida middle-school classroom with his fellow inhabitant, turtle Squirtle (Bill Burr). They watch over the various kids in the class, with teacher Miss Salinas (Allison Strong) bringing warmth and joy to the school; until, that is, she goes on maternity leave and is replaced by a substitute, the odious Mrs Malkin (Cecily Strong), who rules with an iron fist and a jabbing wooden stick. When the kids of the class discover Leo can talk to them, the tiny lizard begins to impart his worldy wisdom to them all, before he discovers that, at aged 74, he’s almost close to his imminent demise. Freaking out, Leo pines for freedom, waffling incessantly about travelling to Florida’s everglades, before a class reward inadvertently allows Mrs Malkin to attempt to dispose of Leo herself.
Co-written by Sandler, co-director Robert Smigel and screenwriter Paul Sado, Leo is about as affable an animated film as you can get. Mixing the plot and characters of classic Disney/Pixar design, the slightly adult-oriented humour and grit of Don Bluth, and the warm-hearted affability of late-stage Sandler (obviously this is a project close to the comedian’s heart, given he’s cast several family members in key voice roles here), Leo is solidly engaging as a morality play with echoes of the equally colourful Rio and its sequel inbuilt into its DNA. This is a film that wears its motives on its sleeve, remaining obstinately obvious at every possible turn (yes, even the film’s heel-turn plot twist is see-it-coming-a-mile-away if you’ve watched animated films for any length of time) and yearning for the same pedigree as it’s more famous animation studio brethren. Netflix’ in-house animation studio, Animal Logic (the studio that gave us Happy Feet and The Lego Movie before the streaming giant purchased it in 2022) is deft in technical prowess, and the film absolutely looks a treat, but there’s a weird disconnect between the promise of the film and its execution – at times the film treads some pretty dour, adult themes despite its overly child-friendly setting, so if you’re a parent wondering if the film is suitable for your child, you’re best served watching this before the kidlets to ensure peace of mind.
That’s not to suggest Leo is filled with wanton violence or graphic adult humour, but rather a heavier underlying premise; the kids in the classroom Leo and Squirtle interact with have numerous family dynamic issues, almost all of which derive from parents of varying quality. For a film in which children and a pair of anthropomorphic animals take the spotlight, most of the inciting emotional and physical incidents here come from the various adults circling the periphery – the emotionally vacant parents, the overly protective helicopter parents, the wealthy spoil-the-kid-rotten parents, the absent parents, and then Mrs Malkin herself; adults in Leo come in for a thick whack and it’s here I think I found most discomfort. Leo’s paternal urges to help these kids – and Squirtle’s insistent refusal to assist – is the film’s heart and soul but it feels a little overwritten, a little overplayed by the writers. Sure, Leo’s narrative is simplistic without being simple, and it challenges children watching to investigate their own feelings about their parents and how they relate to them and each other, through the lens of a character imprisoned in a glass cage mirroring the emotional struggles of the children themselves, but the weird tone of half-adult, half-childlike emotional heft never quite allows it to gel completely. Make no mistake: Leo is a delightful film in almost every facet, and I had a great time watching it with my young son, but the underlying seriousness of the subtext isn’t exactly subtle, and that makes the film feel less accessible than an animated film ought to be.
Thankfully, despite these admittedly minimal misgivings, Leo’s plentiful action and scattershot jokes and sight-gags make for a laugh-a-minute piece of entertainment. I chuckled a number of times (rare for me with these kinds of movies) and my kids did as well, as Leo turns from ancient mountaintop sage to rubber-faced cartoon hero and back sequence after sequence, and in terms of sheer visual panache Animal Logic have exceeded themselves yet again. The character design, the animation style, the use of lighting, camera angles and VFX here are all top-flight, and coupled with legitimately engaging vocal performances the film positively sparkles. I won’t say it’s an overall knockout by any stretch, but Leo’s pointed messaging, delightful jokes and first-rate production more than overcome some of the edginess Sandler and his production have crafted here. Leaning more towards Rango or The Rats of NIMH more than a Pixar or Disney Animation production, Leo is certainly engaging but nowhere near as saccharine as it might first appear. Solid, worthwhile animated entertainment and definitely recommended, especially if you’re a fan of the Hotel Transylvania franchise, because Leo comes with a lot of the same tonal inflections and charm.