The pairing of Happy Madison and Netflix have been spawning a seemingly unending number of Adam Sandler films. Depending on how much one likes Adam Sandler, that could be a blessing or a curse. Their latest film from November of 2023 was an animated one. Leo tells the story of a lizard kept as a class pet who ends up talking to a group of fifth graders to help help them through their troubles. Part comedy, part musical, part coming of age, Leo tackles a lot and does most of it surprisingly well.
The start of the school year sees the kids entering fifth grade, which is their last year before middle school. After their teacher announces she is going on maternity leave, the kids are given an old school and no-nonsense substitute, Ms. Malkin. One of her edicts is that the kids have to take turns bringing home one of the class pets. Leo, who learns that he is at the very end of his life, wishes to escape and finally see the world. Leo’s plans are foiled when he inadvertently reveals to one of the children that he can talk. Leo then ends up talking with each kid about their insecurities.
Sandler, who voices the titular Leo, is no stranger to animated films. As Hotel Transvylania’s Dracula, he has starred in four of Sony’s animated comedic monster movies. Sandler’s Leo, a lizard in his 70’s, is much different than his Dracula, whose shtick grew thinner and thinner with each movie. Partnered with Leo is a turtle named Squirtle voiced by Bill Burr. Sandler and Burr make a great comedic duo, and the rest of the cast is quite strong. The kids are voiced by actual children, including a couple of Sandler’s own, and the adults are all played by comedians. The likes of Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, and Rob Schneider all lend their voices to the film.
Robert Smigel, known for many things the least of which is being the mind behind Triumph the Insult Comic dog, delivers a great script. The jokes came fast, and there’s something for everyone in the audience. From funny dialogue exchanges to visual gags to flat-out ridiculous moments, the laughs are pretty much non-stop.
Gags are well-timed and are rarely at the expense of character. One girl is too talkative, one boy is ashamed of his voice, and while it’s all funny, every kid is sympathetic. One of the best running gags in the whole film is one boy who has a drone constantly hovering around him and monitoring him. Leo teaches him to break up with the drone, and then the drone spends the rest of the film acting like a jilted lover. The movie isn’t afraid to for for the absurd, like having a musical number packed with bizarre dancing clocks.
Animation and comedy go hand in hand, but some films have an over-reliance on goofy animals for cheap laughs. Leo avoids this by giving its star a realistic design. There is weight and texture to Leo and Squirtle. They look unique but not out of place in an elementary school classroom. Some of the other animals in the film take a less realistic approach, but they serve their purpose. The children have strong designs to them as well, and they come across as real people.
Leo didn’t need to have songs in it to be compelling, but they are a welcome element. There are a couple heartfelt ensemble songs where the kids sing about where they have been and their fears about getting older. The other, shorter songs sprinkled throughout are used for comedic purposes. This movie can’t be considered a full musical and some songs even get interrupted partway through, but it’s funnier that way.
While cell phones and other modern devices are ever-present, Leo still manages to be timeless. Leo himself can recognize the problems every kid is going through because he has been observing them for decades. Leo himself works as a character because he feels that he’s at the end of his life and hasn’t really lived. Even Ms. Malkin gets a lot of depth and we see what caused her to be so rigid. While the parents of the children don’t get a lot of focus, we see them through the eyes of their children. The bond among all the characters is real, and the emotion is genuine.
Leo relies on the idea that animals can understand and talk to humans but aren’t smart as humans (there’s a gag about Leo not knowing second grade math because he has only been exposed to a fifth grade education). There is a bit of Toy Story logic at play that doesn’t necessarily hold up. In Toy Story, the toys want to please children and play with them and while all toys are sentient and can talk to each other and animals, they instinctively know not to talk to humans. Leo establishes that animals can talk to each other and can even talk to people but they just don’t. Leo says something about not wanting to be examined by humans, but if all animals can talk, why hasn’t that happened before? Leo doesn’t fear any further consequences once he reveals that he can speak to the kids. Maybe hiding this fact doesn’t matter to Leo anymore since he believes he’s about to die, but, again, why hasn’t this ever happened with any other animal before? Leo and Squirtle act very human-like and talk to each other while in the classroom, but this goes completely unnoticed. It’s not something that distracts from the film, but since Leo connecting with the children is a major thrust of the narrative, it’s something you can’t help but wonder about.
Beyond that, there’s not much that takes the enjoyment out of this film. Some of the kids get more screentime than the others, but there’s just enough from each of them that it feels like a real classroom full of unique children. None of the story beats are ever quite repeated when Leo beings talking to the children one by one. The jokes move along with the story so nothing ever drags.
This movie is a real surprise. With so many animated movies about animals with various levels of intelligence, a movie with a generic name about a class pet doesn’t seem like it would stand out. But it manages to be an animated, comedic emotional movie that works on all levels. If Netflix is going to continue drawing from the Adam Sandler well, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make more movies like Leo.