Movie Review ~ Leo

The Facts:

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.
Stars: Adam Sandler, Bill Burr, Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, Sadie Sandler, Sunny Sandler, Rob Schneider, Jo Koy, Jackie Sandler, Heidi Gardner, Robert Smigel, Nick Swardson, Stephanie Hsu, Nicholas Turturro
Director: Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, David Wachtenheim
Rated: PG
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: As someone fortunate to have several terrific young children in my life (and one awful one…just kidding), I’m a bit torn on how to talk about Leo. My pure critic side has the itch to wholly recommend it for being the tenderly genuine, endlessly cute, and unabashedly charming surprise I found it to be. Tuneful and clever, this musical animated film is aimed at children right on the precipice of turning double digits, a fuzzy target audience that doesn’t often get programming directed toward them. 

Then, the other part of me slowly creeps back into my mind. The one that knows the parents of the kids that may be watching this and wishes that the movie, which begins with an opening number equal parts hilarious and heartwarming, had stayed on that path rather than veering off into the odd, off-color realms it sometimes ventures into. I could be reading the room wrong, but these more mature moments push the boundaries of what kids need to know rather than what they should know at their age. You can argue all day that “they’ll learn it eventually,” but remember the joy of not knowing all you know now?

An original story that has been in development since 2016, Leo comes equipped with a screenplay by SNL veterans Robert Smigel (Hotel Transylvania 2) and Adam Sandler and recent Sandler collaborator Paul Sado. Set mainly in the fifth-grade classroom of a Florida elementary school over a school year, the film follows the students and their various quirks and anxieties as they prepare to leave the nest of lower school and enter the next level of their education, both socially and academically. Watching this all happen are the class pets, Squirtle the Turtle (voiced by Bill Burr, Dog), and Leo the Lizard (Sandler, Murder Mystery 2).

When their beloved teacher goes out on maternity leave and is replaced by a gruff harridan (Cecily Strong, The Boss), the students take home one of the class pets every weekend to learn responsibility. Having just discovered the lifespan of a lizard is 75 years and realizing he’s pushing 74, Leo is only too happy to be allowed to attempt to break free every weekend…until he begins to talk with the children and becomes a much-needed confidant and sounding board for them. Through their talks with Leo, the students begin to harness their emotions, work through their hang-ups, and develop the confidence they’d been lacking. 

This couldn’t be a better set-up for a family film, especially with a release date close to the holidays. The music in Leo is bright and bouncy, often in a nice contrast with Smigel’s lyrics, which are observant, stinging, and superbly humane. Despite Sandler’s best efforts to terrorize us with another dreadfully obnoxious bit of voice acting, he can’t suppress the wonderful comfort Leo gives or his indomitable spirit. What I’m not so sure about is Leo’s duplicity in lying to the children by saying he’s only their “special” friend and not to tell anyone about their “secret.” This is where it gets muddy.

Not only is Leo teaching the kids to keep secrets from their parents, but there are moments when he or Squirtle gives them false information on life to appease them. It may be funny and play into the comedy that will lure adult fans of Sandler, Burr, and other voice actors present, but don’t be fooled that the kids listening in won’t pick up on the themes/threads as well. I was watching the film alone, and I was even embarrassed when one of the children asked Squirtle how babies are made, and he told them, in graphic detail…how turtle babies are made. (It’s not any better.)

Yet despite this and other bizarre shifts that might make you question who the audience for Leo is, you can’t brush aside the fact that it has irrepressible energy, which becomes the infectious driving force of the film by the finale. It’s about fifteen minutes too long (no animated movie for children should ever be more than 90 minutes – there, I said it), and there’s a song for one of the parents that is entirely superfluous, but this is leagues better than Sandler’s last attempt at producing an animated film, 2002’s Eight Crazy Nights. Sandler has found his most tremendous success in animated features (his Hotel Transylvania movies are the highest-grossing in his career), and you can add Leo to his golden mantle, even if it is an odd fit.

Movie Review ~ Wish

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the Kingdom of Rosas, a 17-year-old girl makes a passionate plea to the stars in a moment of need when she senses a darkness that no one else does.
Stars: Ariana DeBose, Chris Pine, Alan Tudyk, Angelique Cabral, Victor Garber, Natasha Rothwell, Evan Peters, Harvey Guillén, Ramy Youssef, Jon Rudnitsky, Jennifer Kumiyama
Director: Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn
Rated: PG
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: This is a big year for The Walt Disney Company. On October 16th, the legendary studio celebrated its 100th anniversary, looking back on a century of entertainment that has pushed boundaries, asked viewers to imagine the impossible, and created dreams for multiple generations. There is hardly a place in the world that hasn’t been touched by Disney in some form or knows a character that the studio created. The legacy lives on in theme parks, merchandise, television shows, live-action movies, and animated feature films that have come to define its brand.

For the 62nd film to come out of Walt Disney Animated Studios, the company has gifted audiences with Wish, a fantastic blend of nostalgia for the classic storybook tales that formed the bedrock of the studio and contemporary musicality that gives it a beautiful, winning heart. The watercolor-like animation is gorgeous, the humor bright, and the songs from Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice are complex and soar right off the screen. Disney has taken confident steps forward by looking back with an eye for what has kept their early work so enduring.

Eagle eye Disney fans will immediately recognize the font that opens the film and will likely know what’s coming next, as star Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) narrates a gilded book that unlocks to reveal the first pages of our story. On a secluded Mediterranean island, an idealistic ruler builds his kingdom with the promise of safety and prosperity away from the harsher realities of the mainland. Teaching himself magic, the King harnesses the power of wishes, taking the greatest wish of each adult citizen and storing it away to be granted later. Once a wish is given, the owner forgets about their dream, freeing them to live a peaceful life, but deep down, there’s a nagging sense of unfulfillment.

The day of her grandfather’s 100th birthday coincides with Asha’s (DeBose) interview to become an apprentice to the King. Thinking that this interview would be a prime time to request for her beloved grandfather to have his wish granted, the question exposes the King’s vulnerability and opens Asha’s eyes to his genuine need for control. Her discouragement fuels a new wish within her, powerful enough to snag a mischievous star (one of the grandest non-verbal creations Disney animators have created in eons) to come down and change Asha’s world and the Kingdom of Rosas forever. However, the power-hungry King recognizes the threat to him from the supernova and Asha’s growing strength. Vowing to stop both, he begins crushing any dream he can along the way.

In casting Oscar-winner DeBose as Asha, Disney has a legitimate superstar talent, the rare actor that can deliver a complete performance simply using the power of their voice. DeBose not only imbues Asha with a formidable strength that comes across as confidently age-appropriate and a strong model for young girls, but she sings with a passion so present it’s like she’s standing in front of you. The Michaels and Rice songs aren’t all rangy showstoppers, but they show what DeBose and the other vocal talent (emphasis on talent) can do with songs that are trickier than we’ve seen in a while.

Along with DeBose, Chris Pine (People Like Us) sounds like he’s having a grand time as King Magnifico. He shares an early duet with DeBose that’s downright lovely and then circles back later with a crazed new take on the “I Want” song. Disney stalwart Alan Tudyk (Peter Pan & Wendy) adds another memorable character, talking goat Valentino, to his stable. Jennifer Kumiyama’s (The Sessions) warm tones as Dahlia, Asha’s best friend, are also welcome. I appreciate that Disney continues to be inclusive, presenting Dahlia as walking with a crutch but normalizing it by not addressing it. 

Directed by Chris Buck & Fawn Veerasunthorn, I can see Wish being a terrific family movie choice for those who only make it out to the theater a few times a year. Though trim at 92 minutes, it doesn’t stay in one place too long, preferring to keep the story moving and the adventure going strong. While one could argue that there are a few too many supporting characters (human and otherwise), I was completely delighted throughout. For me, it was simple. Wish is one of the most pound-for-pound enjoyable animated films I’ve seen in a while. As a bonus, it has a rewarding finale that hints at Disney having more up its sleeve than may meet the eye and a celebratory credit sequence aimed squarely at Disneyholics.