Review: Adam Sandler Continues a Trend of Surprisingly Heartwarming, Family-Business Films with Leo
Much like other recent Adam Sandler outings, such as his family comedy You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah and his sports drama Hustle, his newest animated work, Leo, is a surprisingly heartfelt work. Directed by Robert Marianetti, co-writer Robert Smigel, and David Wachtenheim, the film centers on a jaded, 74-year-old lizard named Leo (Sandler) who, along with his turtle companion Squirtle (Bill Burr), has been stuck in the same terrarium in a Florida elementary school classroom for decades. The kids know that they’re in the room, but don’t really pay attention to the animals, while the animals pay close attention to them, marking their progress (or lack thereof).
However, when the teacher (Allison Strong) takes maternity leave, a strict substitute, Ms. Malkin (Cecily Strong), takes over and rules with an iron fist, forcing one student each weekend to take Leo home with them. During his first stay with a chatty girl named Summer (played by Sandler’s real-life daughter Sunny), Leo accidentally lets slip that he can talk, and convinces Summer that only she can hear him because she’s special, begging her not to reveal his secret. But he also gives her solid advice about how to make friends by being a good listener and talking less about herself all the time, and before long Summer begins making friends left and right. Over the course of the school year, Leo goes home with a different student each week and talks to them as well, dishing out sage words of wisdom and getting very involved in the problems of his students, each of whom think only they can hear him speak.
During the course of the film, the classroom becomes a harmonious place to actually learn and make friends, despite having an incredibly mean substitute teacher. All the while, Leo is plotting to escape terrarium life and see a bit of the outside world, until he finds out that his species of lizard only lives to about 75. And I did I mention Leo is a musical, with some pretty funny and catchy tunes (written by Smigel) that reflect Sandler’s brand of childlike humor, while also being positive, helpful, and sweet?
Other familiar voices in the cast include another Sandler offspring Sadie (as a classmate of Summer); Jason Alexander (as the aforementioned girl’s entitled father); Sandler’s wife Jackie (as the girl’s mother); Rob Schneider (as the school principal); Jo Koy (as the gym teacher); and SNL’s Heidi Gardner (as another student’s mother). The film loses a bit of its charm when Leo actually does get out into the world (although not the way he thought he would), and ends up living in the Everglades among wild creatures, some of which want to eat him.
But the lessons about listening to your elders as well as general themes about sharing, cooperation, and listening are right on point and certainly don’t come across as preachy or hitting you over the head with messages. The humor is a little blue sometimes, but nothing that pushes the limits of its PG rating. Leo is decidedly aimed at kids, but I think longtime fans of Sandler (who co-wrote the film with Smigel and Paul Sado) likely have kids of their own now and will appreciate the boost. As someone who largely ignored Sandler’s mid-career material, I’m really enjoying this turn into something that resembles maturity from the perpetual man-child, and Leo certainly has its heart in the right place.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.