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Adam Sandler goes grampa mode in this mildly funny Netflix animated adventure playing a classroom reptile who gives life lessons to 5th graders. Goofy, comforting, unambitious.
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Adam Sandler, once the angry young man-child of comedy, is clearly in his calmer years now, reveling in family-friendly laughers like “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” and the “Hotel Transylvania” trilogy, though he’ll still occasionally rise for something edgy like “Uncut Gems.”
When he signed his megadeal with Netflix a few years back, it produced much smirking and derision from those who said Sandler was no longer a draw for theatrical features. That may or may not be true, but it seems like it’s been a fruitful partnership, from a popular if not critical standpoint. Sandler has entered a sort of beloved elder statesman status among jokesters.
His latest for the streaming giant, “Leo,” is typical fare for this stage of his career. It’s an animated film in which he provides the voice for the titular character, a 74-year-old classroom pet reptile who has spent his entire life inside a glass aquarium. As the story begins he learns that his life span is 75 years, so he becomes bent on escaping so he can finally get a taste of real life in the wild.
Instead, he accidentally starts talking to the kids, imparting life lessons and helping them become better people. Over time, his desire for breaking out grows less and less as he becomes more connected to the children, and they to him.
It’s basically Sandler in grampa mode, as evidenced by the slightly raspy, quavering voice he uses for Leo, along with a smidgen of Brooklyn Jewish accent. Clearly, Sandler’s comedic habitat is more mild than wild these days.
It’s got a few good laughs, and the animation has a bright crispness to it I appreciated. Children up through early teens will probably appreciate it the most, with its emphasis on kid-centric challenges and gastrointestinal humor.
The movie is goofy, comforting and unambitious.
Sandler produced and co-wrote the screenplay with longtime collaborator Robert Smigel plus Paul Sado; Smigel and fellow “Saturday Night Live” alums David Wachtenheim and Robert Marianetti directed.
Bill Burr voices Leo’s aquarium-mate, an acerbic turtle named Squirtle, a nod to his tendency to pee all over everything. He and Leo have been together for decades at Fort Myers, Fla., Elementary, watching the 5th graders roll in and out, and see every type of problem child: the bully, the recently divorced kid, the class clown who secretly hates himself, the overly chatty first-born, and so on.
Apparently Leo and Squirtle have always had the ability to talk to humans — along with most other animals, as we’ll find out — and just never chose to use it. Basically, they just sit back and operate as hecklers, sort of a reptilian Statler and Waldorf.
Interesting aside: everyone, including Leo himself, refers to him as a lizard, though an early reference calls him a tuatara, a New Zealand reptile that lacks external ears, prefers cool to warm climates and is nocturnal, thus not a lizard. Maybe the screenwriters were just being lazy, or maybe that’s an inside joke about Leo having spent his entire life inside glass and thus doesn’t know any better.
As the new class comes in an gets settled, their regular teacher has to go on early maternity leave, and Ms. Malkin (Cecily Strong) is brought in as a permanent substitute. Older, stout and cranky, she wields a yardstick as pointer/intimidator, thinks laptop computers are “toys” and believes in old-school teaching methods. The kids are instantly crushed, though Leo and Squirtle are prepared to sit back and drink it all in.
(Aside to illustrate generational differences: my elementary school employed a Mrs. Hooker who always carried an old golf driver club that the head had long fallen off, and would smash it down on the desks of daydreaming students. All the furniture in her classroom looked like it came out of a war zone.)
Among Ms. Malkin’s edicts is that all students take turns taking a school pet home for the weekend to learn responsibility. First up is Summer (Sunny Sandler), a nervous yakety type who is disliked because she never stops talking. During his hours-long escape attempt — tuatara are not exactly speedy — Leo is discovered and starts talking to Summer.
After her initial shock, Leo counsels her to slow down, not talk about herself so much and ask people questions about themselves. He also advises her not to tell any of the other kids he can talk, because it’s a special thing he does just for her.
This goes in subsequent weekends, involving the snotty rich girl, Jayda (Sadie Sandler), the bully, the class cut-up, and so on. Each believes they’re the only one Leo talks to.
Squirtle, who was not very big on the whole going-home-with-kids thing, is nonetheless nonplussed that his buddy is always the one picked. Coupled with Leo’s secret with each kid — purely plot-driven — this sets up predictable third-act contretemps involving a field trip to Magic Land Park (totally NOT a reference to Orlando’s Disney attractions, or so the lawyers stipulate) that winds up detouring to the Everglades.
I should mention the film is also kind of a musical, in that characters will suddenly break into song, especially for boring exposition-y stuff. The tunes (by Smigel) aren’t particularly memorable, or even musical, but they also have the benefit of being mostly quite short.
I liked the look of “Leo” a lot. The not-lizard protagonist has a tired, schlumpy sort of charm, and the children are all very distinctive and full of facial emotion. There’s some good physical humor, and overall the whole affair is like a warm, slightly naughty, hug.
You wouldn’t think a reptile that has spent his whole life inside a glass box would have much in the way of worldly wisdom to impart, but I guess as an observer of eight decades worth of kids and their misbehavior, tantrums and troubles, Leo has a way of really listening and thinking of the best thing to do.
Except, maybe don’t lie to the very first kid you talk to.