Adam Sandler stars in “Leo” as a grumpy lizard who has spent his entire life in the terrarium of a fifth-grade classroom. He’s been joined by a turtle named Squirtle (Bill Burr), and the two are mostly content to stare out the glass, year after year, commenting like Statler and Waldorf on the various tween archetypes that show up on the first day of school: the motormouth, the class clown, the kid with helicopter parents who’s allergic to everything. But the bubble bursts for Sandler’s Leo when he realizes that he’s approaching 75 — the average life span for his species — and has hardly gotten to live out his dreams as a free lizard.
Leo sees an opportunity with the arrival of a no-nonsense substitute teacher, Ms. Malkin (Cecily Strong), after the usual instructor goes on maternity leave. Along with implementing a stricter disciplinary system, she assigns her students at the Florida school to take turns bringing Leo home, caring for him as their own pet. The kids are dismayed, until one of them, the chatty Summer (voiced by Sandler’s daughter Sunny), discovers that the seemingly docile lizard can talk, and begins to open up to him about her problems. Leo, finding fulfillment in his new task, takes on the role of therapist each week, dishing out advice and convincing each student that they’re the only one who can hear him speak.
“Leo” is the second animated film from Sandler’s creative house Happy Madison Productions and his newest release for Netflix. Unlike the company’s first foray into animation, the raunchy 2002 Hanukkah flick “Eight Crazy Nights,” “Leo” aims for wholesome family entertainment, combining themes like the challenges of growing older with a healthy dose of G-rated toilet humor (and a few double entendres that will go over kids’ heads).
Sandler does a fine job as the voice of Leo, delivering a good mix of gruffness and sweetness into an absurd scenario. The kids in “Leo” confide in him their desire to be understood by their parents and peers, and the film drives home the overdone but nonetheless true message that everyone faces this struggle — even popular girls like Jayda (played by Sandler’s other daughter, Sadie). These tender moments are punctuated by several original songs — yes, “Leo” is a full-blown musical — and a plethora of running gags, like portraying the school’s kindergartners as wide-eyed bobbleheads crashing into walls.
Written by Sandler, Paul Sado, and Robert Smigel (who also directed the film with Robert Marianetti and David Wachtenheim), “Leo” sometimes has trouble identifying its audience. The musical sequences aren’t particularly interesting visually and will drag on for adults, yet it’s hard to imagine children sitting through Leo and Squirtle’s extended riffs on divorced parents or the courtship behaviors of reptiles and not getting a little bored. But with the holidays rolling around and families gathering, this will undoubtedly work as something to put on in the background for everyone.
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