Leo (dirs. Robert Marianetti & Robert Smigel)

By: Adam Freed

The landscape of children's entertainment is far from barren.  Nary a week goes by without a major streaming service releasing an animated story into America’s bloodstream.  The issue is certainly not quantity or availability, but quality and connectivity.  Frustratingly, there have been far more animated misses than hits of late, and the massive animated success stories of the year, Spider Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, both released over the past summer.  In response to this troubled elementary entertainment environment, Netflix Studios calls upon the most unlikely of partners, Adam Sandler, to provide sweet relief in this mid holiday season.  Sandler and Netflix are hardly newlyweds, as the couple have partnered in the creation of several barely digestible demonstrations of streaming mediocrity.  Given the partnership’s lukewarm history, it comes as a delightful surprise that Sandler’s newest project, Leo, the sentimental animated quasi musical, plays almost all of the right notes. 

Leonardo is a 74 year old talking lizard who spends his remaining years sequestered in a terrarium observing fifth grade students, who year after year make the difficult transition from little kids to junior high school students.  Leo is at its comedic and emotional best in its capturing of the contemporary emotional challenges facing 10 and 11 year olds who are simultaneously trapped in a world of small children, via the film’s hilarious depiction of kindergarteners, yet are old enough to process complex emotions while on the brink of permanent hormonal evolution.   Credit to the Netflix production and to writers  Adam Sandler and Robert Smigel (Saturday Night Live) for injecting Leo with the harsh realities of every classroom and parental archetype that the fifth grade can possibly offer.  It would be easy for a musical comedy to punch down at the problems of the tweens, but the film’s strength is that it refuses to do so. 

Sandler’s classroom lizard Leo faces a crisis as the realization that his reptilian lifespan is soon set to expire.  A life lived in observation of the highs and lows of fifth grade life provides the film with a great deal of hilarity, and some far too real moments of somber reflection.  Assisted by his lifetime terrarium mate Squirtle the Turtle, aptly voiced by Bill Burr, Leo sets forth with the commendable mission to use what time he has remaining to impart his 74 years of wisdom on the students who learn to view him as a friend and mentor.  Nestled in the heart of a funny sing-song elementary school comedy are numerous moments of rich sentimentality and emotional reflection, which may sail over the heads of the youngest of viewers but are sure to hit the mark with audiences on the doorstep of their tween years.  The true test of an animated film’s mettle is its ability to connect to a multigenerational audience.  This is an exam that Leo passes with flying colors.  While tweens may draw from Leo as a form of social navigation tool, parents are granted a rare window into the parallel lives that children live behind school walls.  In either case, Adam Sandler’s animated comedy is a success.  In a perfect world adults don’t wait as Leo did, until they reach the end of their lifespan to provide children the gift of their experience.  If it accomplishes nothing else, Adam Sandler’s Leo reminds audiences that a life lived in service to others can never be a life wasted.

Target Score: 7/10 - Adam Sandler and Robert Smigel team to create a funny and heartwarming story about an animated lizard who wants nothing more than to make the most of the remaining moments of his life.  Through the use of musical comedy and perfectly aimed sentimentality, Leo is a family film sure to connect with tweens and the adults who love them.