Nobody Does Weird Animated Kids’ Movies Like Adam Sandler
Westerns, rom-coms, mysteries, family films, thrillers, horror-comedies, dramas: Adam Sandler does a little bit of everything. But his new Netflix movie Leo is a reminder that, over the years, he’s also tried his hand at animated fare, resulting in some of the strangest films in his career. I realize “strangest” is all relative when it comes to Sandler’s movies — this is a man who convinced Al Pacino to rap a song in honor of Dunkaccino for Jack and Jill — but Leo features things you rarely see in the genre. Pixar, this ain’t, but it also ain’t quite a DreamWorks or Illumination picture, either. Co-produced and co-written by Sandler, and starring him as a grumpy old lizard near the end of his life, Leo is its own strange creature. The movie is so delightfully weird that I only wish it was actually good.
The titular lizard resides in a terrarium in a fifth-grade class in Florida, hanging out with his best friend Squirtle (Bill Burr), who’s an ancient turtle. They’ve both been a decoration in that classroom for years, having seen kids come and go over the decades, and therefore able to recognize patterns in their behavior. (No matter the eras, there are always bullies and spoiled brats and sensitive souls.) Leo and Squirtle crack wise with a seen-it-all superiority often displayed by senior citizens, but Leo freaks out when he learns that lizards only live to be about 75 — and that he’s 74. He hasn’t seen the world! He needs to break outta there!
That premise is very familiar in the world of mainstream animated kids’ films, but Leo (which is co-directed and co-written by Robert Smigel) quickly goes its own way. When the class’ substitute teacher, the unsmiling disciplinarian Ms. Malkin (Cecily Strong), assigns the students to each bring Leo home with them so they can learn how to take care of something, the crafty lizard realizes this is his opportunity to spring himself. Instead, and much to his surprise, he starts bonding with the little brats, learning about their problems and offering his perspective. Even though the kids are initially weirded out by a talking lizard who sounds like Adam Sandler doing his patented nutty-Jewish-guy voice, they come to love the little green guy. Likewise, Leo suddenly seems less concerned about making a run for it.
My plot synopsis doesn’t quite encapsulate everything going on in Leo — for example, I haven’t mentioned that the film is also a musical. But it’s not a traditional musical — one song gets sidetracked when one of the characters intended to be part of a spontaneous duet announces she doesn’t sing, while another (a touching lullaby) is about the fact that kids shouldn’t cry because it’s annoying when they do. You can feel Sandler and Smigel’s sarcastic streak throughout Leo, the movie often resisting the saccharine uplift endemic to kids’ flicks.
This isn’t the first time Sandler has been part of an animated film — or even an animated musical. It’s been almost exactly 21 years since Eight Crazy Nights, which got bad reviews and tanked at the box office, the Sandman delivering his own skewed take on holiday films. Eight Crazy Nights was a mixed bag — a lot of its humor has not aged well — but he had much more success with the Hotel Transylvania franchise, which taught the world that Sandler has a very funny Dracula impression.
Playing the harried “Drac,” a single father dealing with a strong-willed daughter, Sandler touched on themes of family that have been prevalent even in his early broad comedies like Big Daddy and The Waterboy — except without the annoyingly cloying qualities of his actual family films, like Bedtime Stories. Instead, the original Hotel Transylvania kept feeling secretly more grown-up and subversive than it appeared, Sandler’s heavy accent both endearing and kind of a put-on — a goof on what we imagine vampires sound like thanks to horror movies. The jokes were dopey and juvenile, the characters exceedingly silly. It was like an Adam Sandler routine, but as an all-ages cartoon.
Leo continues a winning streak of sorts for Sandler on Netflix, following on the heels of Hubie Halloween and You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, which found him shifting into Delightful Comedy Icon mode after years of being considered The Devil Incarnate. Either the world has softened on Sandler’s brand of stupidity or it has simply accepted its appeal — while understanding that, if you’re lucky, occasionally a masterpiece like Uncut Gems will sneak out as well. The Sandler in Leo is immensely likable, even if the jokes are extremely hit-or-miss. A lot of them are of the “Get off my lawn” variety, with Leo and Squirtle lamenting how irritating kids are with their smartphone dependency and social-media habits.
Admittedly, that’s a very funny stance in a movie ostensibly geared to kids — imagine if superhero films spent a large portion of their runtime telling fanboys that they suck — but there’s a surprise in store for viewers. You see, as much as Leo mocks kids for their immaturity and lack of poise, the filmmakers are ultimately critical of their parents, arguing that they’re stifling their children in the futile attempt to make their lives perfect. One spoiled popular girl is the product of an entitled, wealthy dad who will stop at nothing to ensure his angel gets every advantage. An uptight, overly cautious boy has been raised by a mom who practically places him in bubble wrap, afraid of germs, food allergies and the usual bumps and bruises that visit every kid if he wants to enjoy life at all.
Too often, this commentary can come across as “Back in my day” moaning about the wimp-ification of modern life — blessedly, there are no zingers about participation trophies — but Leo has a straight-talking realness that separates it from Pixar’s elevated, sometimes overly precious thematic undercurrents or the simplistic bromides delivered by the studio’s less-inspired peers. Ironically, Leo is a film that tells kids to get over themselves and toughen up, mostly by insisting that they tell off the adults who are stunting their development because of their own issues.
The usual Sandler shtick is available in abundance. There are thinly veiled dick jokes, just as there are gags about getting embarrassing tattoos on your ass and urinating on yourself when you’re scared. The musical numbers, written by Smigel, are more like an idea of what usually counts as an animated musical number — they’re sorta catchy and sorta jokey and not especially memorable. As with Sandler’s earlier animated movies, Leo keeps rolling its eyes at what passes for kids’ entertainment, not entirely embracing the assignment because it wants to do something a little wilder and naughtier than what’s usually permitted. Especially after suffering through this Thanksgiving’s other animated release, Disney’s lazy and cynical Wish, I’d much rather watch Leo again.
But despite the film’s strengths — the grouchy rapport between Sandler and Burr, the freewheeling “Screw it, let’s try this” approach to the storytelling — Leo starts to lose momentum the more it tries to replicate the conventions of animated family films. As much as Leo is that rare kids’ movie about dying — Leo wants to make the most of his life before he croaks — the filmmakers shy away from touching on thoughtful ideas by eventually offering a copout for its lovable lizard. And Leo resorts to the sort of action set pieces that have become so boring in these kinds of films. There’s a little tear-jerking moment at the end, but it too feels obligatory — a sop to undemanding audiences that just want a nice positive message.
In other words, for as sophomoric and snarky as Leo is — as much as it tries to be a wised-up take on animated family films — its big failing is that it isn’t weird and subversive enough. At its best, Leo proves how much fun Adam Sandler can have in cartoon mode. At its worst, it reminds you of those fictional god-awful movies Sandler’s sellout superstar comedian plays in Funny People. Let’s just hope he never makes MerMan.