Earlier this year, Adam Sandler’s high-volume, low-quality Netflix deal gifted us with the surprisingly sensitive coming-of-age comedy You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, a rare critical win for his company, Happy Madison. It might not have reached the heights of the year’s other big pre-teen adaptation Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? but it was sweeter and subtler than most expected and became his best-reviewed film to date on Rotten Tomatoes, an interesting use of his sway at the streamer.
It might have been focused on middle schoolers but it represented a maturity absent from so many of Sandler’s tiresome films on Netflix, a platform he initially collaborated with because it rhymes with “Wet Chicks”. His latest Leo sits comfortably alongside, another classroom-based comedy for an even younger audience, and while Sandler plays a bigger role this time, from dad in the background to protagonist in the fore, we see even less of him on screen. That’s because Leo is an animated lizard, voiced by Sandler, (his second cartoon outing after 2002’s loathed Eight Crazy Nights) a school pet dealing with his own mortality.
After Leo starts to worry that at 74, he might be nearing the end, he decides to hatch an escape plan so that he can finally see the world outside of a tank, which he shares with a turtle, voiced by Bill Burr. But when Leo sees a way out, scuttling away during a weekend being looked after by one of the students, he finds himself becoming an unlikely agony uncle instead. Each of the kids he proceeds to stay with needs him in some different way and Leo starts to realise that it might be more important for him to stay rather than go.
As Leo, Sandler makes the slightly ill-advised decision to “do a voice”, something he last did in 2020’s Hubie Halloween, adding an unnecessary, annoying-dad-telling-a-bedtime-story silliness to what’s ultimately a rather earnest little movie. The kids that Leo takes time to counsel have issues varying from an inability to ask questions to being oversensitive to masking anxiety and it’s in these deft two-hander vignettes that the film is most successful, Sandler’s co-written script choosing to take specific problems seriously, life lessons told without a side order of fart jokes. Some of the embellishments surrounding these moments are less successful, the film often unsure how to turn the central conceit into a full story.
It’s a sort of musical with a string of half-numbers that range from lazily tossed off to charmingly committed, all of which stop before they really even get started. The last act is a bit of a jumble with a late-stage antagonist and an inevitable quest, a disjointed scramble, but one that climaxes in a worthy reminder for kids to share their problems rather than bottling them up, a not exactly groundbreaking endnote but one that’s expressed genuinely enough for it to register.
Brightly animated and with moments of surprising insight, there’s a warm likability to Leo that radiates, for those still in the classroom and those who left it long ago.
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