Lest it appears that 2023 is a little light on excellent animated movies, Netflix’s Leo comes out of nowhere to wow with its deeply rooted musicality and hilariously inspired scripting. Considering the breadth of quality genre flicks on the steamer—including Wendell & Wild, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, and Vivo—why was it such a surprise that Leo manages to replicate that sense of childhood whimsy and joy so many mainstream flicks just plain get wrong? A trio of seasoned directors (Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, David Wachtenheim) and writers (Smigel, Adam Sandler, Paul Sado) ensure Leo will be a wonderful treat that is fun for the whole family. This adorable flick carries poignant messages that kids of all ages deserve to absorb.
Fifth grade starts tomorrow! In the dazzling opening musical number, we meet pretty much every major character with a tease of their current problems. The humans lament their final year of elementary school (their homerooms are on the second floor now!), but terrarium-pals Leo the lizard (Adam Sandler) and curmudgeon turtle Squirtle (Bill Burr) have a different view. Year after year, these “class pets” observe the ins and outs of their quaint Florida classroom. They play cards as they people watch, pointing out hysterically obtuse viewpoints on the different types of students roaming the halls.
When the lovable teacher comes down with a serious case of pregnancy and must go off on maternity leave, a horrific substitute, Miss Malkin (Cecily Strong), takes her place. Much to the horror of Leo and Squirtle, Malkin uses her mini-vacuum to suck up the book the class was reading, Charlotte’s Web, along with any hope that the school year will be a smooth one. To make matters worse, Malkin informs the class that they will each be responsible for taking home a class pet for the day, feeding them properly, and returning them in healthy condition. In this way, the children will learn about the value of responsibility.
After coming to the realization that his life may soon be coming to an end, 74-year-old Leo decides he is going to live this final year any way he sees fit. Against all rules of the animal kingdom, Leo uses his voice to actually talk to the children in the class. Each time one of them brings Leo home for the night, they learn something valuable about themselves that can mold the individuals into well-rounded adults. Leo is almost a therapy animal in this regard, and utilizes his services to make a change for the better. There is only one caveat: since each child is special, none can know that Leo talks to the others. His “special ability” must be kept secret, even from Squirtle’s jealous tendencies.
The animation style here embraces the humor of its script with open arms. Co-director David Wachtenheim—who worked in the animation department on over a dozen projects including Codename: Kids Next Door, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and Sherlock Gnomes—clearly understands what works in the medium. The songs are as catchy and ridiculous as they should be. So far, Sandler has made many impressive gestures into the medium, but I would have to say that Eight Crazy Nights and now Leo are my absolute favorites from him.
Oftentimes a quick gag will come out of nowhere to surprise with its ridiculousness, such as the first entrance of Miss Malkin wherein her classroom door creaks openly slowly to a preposterous extreme before she walks inside. Leo does an exceptional job of building pay-offs to comedic bits, taking its time to earn each and every one of them. As with actual therapists, not every bit of Leo’s advice should be taken seriously; the fact that he communicates with the children at all though folds right into the film’s wonderful takeaways.
When Leo needs to get more serious, it does so effortlessly. Miss Malkin, who under normal circumstances could be simply painted as a stereotypical villain, gets a redemption unlike any other. Her story in a sense commingles with Leo’s own; both struggle finding their place in a strange world. In the end, a therapy-positive children’s film may be the first of its kind. Everybody needs someone to talk to, and Leo teaches the kids this important lesson for what could be his final year on the planet. In the film’s own words, “we all need a little Leo in our lives.”
Take Leo home for the day when he crawls exclusively to Netflix on Friday, November 21st.