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HomeentertainmentMovie News‘Leo’ Review: Adam Sandler Is an Advice-Dispensing Lizard in Netflix’s Animated Charmer

‘Leo’ Review: Adam Sandler Is an Advice-Dispensing Lizard in Netflix’s Animated Charmer

The lessons in Netflix’s new animated coming-of-age musical Leo might be clichéd, but they are presented with enough heart to turn even the most cynical viewers into fans of the titular reptile. 

Leo, voiced by Adam Sandler, is a lizard, and he’s lived in the same classroom for nearly 80 years. Hundreds of fifth-graders have walked through the halls of Fort Myer Elementary School, so there’s not much Leo hasn’t seen when it comes to angsty preteens and their anxious parents. Their aesthetics and preoccupations have changed — the most recent class of students are glued to their phones and no longer sporting mohawks — but their problems are largely the same. From his tank, which he shares with a turtle named Squirtle (Bill Burr), Leo observes each new batch of kids with a distant curiosity. 


The Bottom Line So sweet you won’t mind the clichés.

Release date: Friday, Nov. 17 (select theaters); Tuesday, Nov. 21 (Netflix)
Cast: Adam Sandler, Bill Burr, Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, Sadie Sandler, Sunny Sandler, 
Directors: Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, David Wachtenheim 
Screenwriters: Robert Smigel, Adam Sandler, and Paul Sado 
Rated PG, 1 hour 42 minutes

All of that shifts when Leo overhears an adult during parent-teacher conferences remarking on his age. According to the bespectacled gentlemen, the lizard looks like he’s nearing the end of his life. The conversation shocks Leo, who becomes obsessed with making the most of what is surely his last year. He endeavors to be free, to see the world (or, realistically, more of Florida, where the animated feature is set) and find purpose beyond being a class pet. 

Where Leo heads won’t be shocking to most people, especially the adults watching. The comedy, directed by Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel and David Wachtenheim and written by Smigel, Sandler and Paul Sado, is conventionally framed. But what makes Leo special are the kinds of lessons on offer. Its message is well-timed for a generation who find themselves held hostage by their parents’ anxieties and stand to inherit a world of problems. Leo encourages adults to let go and reminds kids that growing up doesn’t have to be so scary. 

The new school year opens with a song and an announcement. An ensemble tune about the last year of elementary school ends with the realization that Ms. Salinas (Allison Strong), a beloved teacher, is pregnant. The news devastates her students and their guardians, who have historically hated the school’s substitute teachers. “I’m texting my daughter right now,” says one enraged parent (Jason Alexander) who uses his donations to exercise power over the administration. “She’ll be devastated.” His daughter, Jayda (Sadie Sandler), is less than crushed. She and her classmates proceed to scheme different ways to make the unknowing substitute miserable. 

Their plans don’t succeed. Replacing Ms. Salinas is Ms. Malkin (Cecily Strong), a cantankerous and tough woman who believes in the power of demerits over stars. She institutes dramatic changes to the classroom, including a rule that forces one student to take home a class pet each weekend. The students bristle at this idea until they realize that Leo isn’t just an ordinary lizard, but a talking one. 

Summer (Sunny Sandler), a chatty fifth grader with a tendency to bore people with her monologues, figures it out first. She unwittingly intercepts Leo’s attempt to escape out of her bedroom window (the lizard is trying to see the world, after all) and in the process flings him into her wall. “Mother of Godzilla,” Leo shrieks, prompting Summer to inquire about the source of that noise. 

There’s a cardinal rule in the world of Leo that animals can never speak to humans. What would happen if the two-legged creatures realized they weren’t the only sentient beings in the animal kingdom? Chaos, of course. Leo convinces Summer that she’s the only one who can hear him and the shared secret leads to genuine friendship. The fifth grader, one of the most unpopular in her class, starts to treat Leo like a therapist. She expresses her concerns, and in response, he gives her advice to help her fit in. Try breaking up your monologues by asking people what they think, he suggests. When Summer takes his advice, she starts to make friends. 

Most of Leo proceeds in a similar after-school-special manner. Each week, a different kid takes the lizard home and he, after convincing them that no one else can hear him, offers to listen to their problems. These vignettes effectively satirize modern parenthood and showcase the range of Leo’s counsel. Sandler does characteristically great voice work, giving Leo a curmudgeonly personality founded on real sensitivity. (He’s like a geriatric Count Dracula from Hotel Transylvania.) The more advice Leo gives to the kids, the more purpose he finds in his life. He channels his worries about dying into helping these students — who don’t feel seen and heard by their parents — live.

Each lesson in the film speaks to the stresses of modern parenting, and in that way Leo might be one of those kids movies that’s better suited for adults. Most of these 10-year-olds are unhappy because their material abundance — gadgets, toys, etc. — can’t replace the gift of being understood. There are occasions when the film drags as it attempts to flip back and forth between addressing kids and adults, but most of Leo moves nimbly.

The animation work in Leo is solid (it’s similar to Apple TV+’s Luck) and the music (by Smigel, while Geoff Zanelli composed the score) is more winking theatricality than memorable rhymes. It’s the narrative and Sandler’s comedic timing that will keep you watching. The actor is joined by his daughters here, who contribute fine voice work (Leo, like Netflix’s You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, feels like a family affair): Sadie and Sunny Sandler play Jayda and Summer, respectively, two girls on opposite sides of the popularity spectrum, who share more than they realize. 

After all, that’s the real heart of Leo. The more advice the cold-blooded creature dispenses, the more obvious it becomes that the new fifth-graders at Fort Myer Elementary School are going through similar growing pains. They all worry about the future — high school is daunting — and not being normal enough. They’ve all got questions they’re too embarrassed to ask and fears that keep them up at night. It’s through their conversations with Leo that they realize they aren’t alone.

Full credits

Distributor: Netflix
Production companies: Netflix, Animal Logic, Happy Madison Productions, Screen NSW
Cast: Adam Sandler, Bill Burr, Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, Sadie Sandler, Sunny Sandler, Rob Schneider, Jo Koy, Allison Strong, Jackie Sandler, Heidi Gardner, Robert Smigel, Nick Swardson, Stephanie Hsu, Nicholas Turturro, Benjamin Bottani, Coulter Ibanez, Corey J, Lileina Joy, Elijah Kim, Reese Lores, Gloria Manning, Carson Minniear, Aldan Liam Philipson, TienYa Safko, Ethan Smigel, Roey Smigel, Bryant Tardy
Directors: Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, David Wachtenheim 
Screenwriters: Robert Smigel, Adam Sandler, and Paul Sado 
Producers: Adam Sandler, Mireille Soria 
Executive producers: Barry Bernardi, Allen Covert, Paul Sado 
Production designer: Simon Rodgers 
Editors: Patrick Voetberg, Joseph Titone 
Composer: Geoff Zanelli 
Casting director: Amber Horn, CSA and Danielle Aufiero, CSA 
Rated PG, 1 hour 42 minutes

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