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
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.