A surprisingly heartfelt musical comedy from Adam Sandler that will keep kids and parents equally entertained.
PLOT: Jaded 74-year-old lizard Leo (Sandler) has been stuck in the same Florida classroom for decades with his terrarium-mate turtle (Bill Burr). When he learns he only has one year left to live, he plans to escape to experience life on the outside but instead gets caught up in the problems of his anxious students — including an impossibly mean substitute teacher. It ends up being the strangest but most rewarding bucket list ever…
REVIEW: The Happy Madison machine continues to chug along, and we can do nothing to stop it. From the first project Adam Sandler made under his deal with Netflix (the atrocious The Ridiculous 6), the output from the former SNL star’s production company has been mixed at best. But, nestled between the crap vanity projects, Sandler has developed some solid work, including Hustle and You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah. Happy Madison’s latest is the animated Leo, the first animated offering from the company since 2002’s Eight Crazy Nights. Like that Hannukah-themed offering, Leo is surprisingly heartfelt with a more sincere message than Sandler’s big-screen Hotel Transylvania movies. While it does not match the caliber of Pixar or Dreamworks, Leo looks great. He delivers a solid combination of comedy and musical numbers to entertain kids and parents equally.
After three-quarters of a century in an elementary school classroom in Fort Myers, Florida, Leo (Adam Sandler) overhears someone saying that his species has a lifespan of seventy-five years. Knowing that leaves him with a finite amount of time before he kicks the bucket, Leo ventures into the world to do everything he has never done before. His roommate, Squirtle (Bill Burr), thinks Leo is nuts. Still, when cantankerous substitute teacher, Mrs. Malkin (Cecily Strong), introduces a task for the kids to take a pet home over the weekend, Leo sees his chance at living the life he never did before it is too late. On his first trip, Leo tags along with motor-mouth Summer (Sunny Sandler) and realizes there is something more special he can do with the kids in his class than run out on them. And so begins an hour-long rotation of Leo going home with various students for the weekend and helping them out in various ways. Each begins with Leo listening and offering his expertise while the kids finally get someone to serve as their mentor.
The first scene in Leo is a musical number, which I thought would be a way to kickstart the movie, but this film is a musical through and through. Echoing the classic formula of Disney fare for decades, Leo boasts over a dozen songs ranging from little moments delivered by Adam Sandler in his amphibian voice. In contrast, others are full productions boasting performances by Jason Alexander and more. The songs are nowhere near as catchy as what you hear in Frozen or Disney’s upcoming Wish, but they are also chock full of humor in line with Sandler’s sensibilities. The film is also the second 2023 production from Sandler to showcase his family, with Sunny, Sadie, and his wife Jackie in key roles in the film. The voice cast also features Rob Schneider, Stephanie Hsu, Jo Koy, Heidi Gardner, Nick Swardson, Kevin James, and co-writer Robert Smigel. But, despite the adult cast featuring Happy Madison veterans and newcomers, the vast majority of the vocal work is led by Sandler, Burr, Strong, and the child cast.
Clocking in at an hour and forty minutes, Leo begins to plod along in places, shifting from a Billy Madison-esque school tale to a more elaborate fantasy adventure in line with films like Madagascar or The Wild. Adam Sandler’s vocal approach to voicing Leo gives the character some charm and keeps him in a family-friendly mode throughout. Burr, affecting a higher pitched voice, is also very clean despite a couple of jokes venturing deep into double entendres that parents will chuckle at, but some kids will understand as well. There are plot elements involving grief at losing loved ones, peer pressure, bullying, and more, which are relatable subplots often overlooked in projects like this. While Leo does not dive too deeply into the subjects themselves, each is given a quick morale boost and an inspirational moment to try and show audiences that Leo means his best. Halfway through the film, the villainous turn is pretty easily figured out, but I did not expect a double switch that makes the movie feel anticlimactic.
Directed by Robert Marianetti, David Wachtenheim, and Robert Smigel, all three of whom worked on the long-running Saturday Night Live animated segment TV Funhouse, Leo glides along harmlessly and without much in terms of stakes. Smigel co-wrote Leo with Adam Sandler and Paul Sado (Sandy Wexler, The Cobbler) in a movie that has the feel of a bunch of small ideas pushed together into a feature film. At the start, Leo feels like an adventure story before becoming a moralistic fable. It then transitions into a redemption story and concludes as a rescue. None of these arcs feels very complete. A handful of moments had me chuckling, but the film overall feels pretty repetitive. The music is one of Leo’s saving graces as it takes the energy up a notch and gives the various characters quirky moments that stand out in an otherwise bland narrative. The score by Geoff Zanelli and the fun soundtrack elevate the animation from feeling generic but cannot help lift this movie that much further.
There is nothing inherently bad about Leo, but that also prevents it from being better. Like most of Adam Sandler’s Netflix-era films, you get what you pay for. Leo will keep the kids entertained, and Sandler fans will find more to laugh at than they may expect from a movie aimed at grade-schoolers. Boasting decent animation and some quirky musical moments, Leo is not a disaster, but it won’t make for repeat viewing in most households. I appreciate that Sandler and Smigel have worked hard to make something outside their typical wheelhouse here. Still, with so many Happy Madison alums working on it, Leo does not venture far enough from their formula to warrant a wide audience. If you want to see a good Happy Madison film aimed at families, check out You Are So Not Invited To My Bat Mitzvah instead. If you just want something fresh to keep your nieces and nephews out of your way this Thanksgiving, this may be the movie for you.