While Leo tells a surprisingly heart-warming story about locating one’s purpose, the film struggles to nail down a single identity of its own.
- Leo, a new animated film starring Adam Sandler, takes its time to establish its story, resulting in a film that struggles to find its own identity.
- The film tries on many different formal approaches, with some working well, like the chemistry between Sandler and Bill Burr, while others, like the musical numbers, fall flat.
- Despite its flaws, Leo radiates warmth and charm, with moments of greatness, showcasing the care and passion put into its creation.
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Adam Sandler is back on Netflix with another original movie. The star’s history with the streamer stretches back to the earliest days of the platform’s original content, with his critically panned The Ridiculous Six predating the first season of Stranger Things. Sandler’s new film, Leo, is produced under the star’s Happy Madison production company and written by Sandler, alongside longtime collaborators Robert Smigel and Paul Sado. The animated film calls to mind another Sandler-Smigel collaboration, Hotel Transylvania, although it remains to be seen whether the new film will see the same franchise success.
It takes a while for Leo to clarify just what kind of story it will be. The film takes its time to settle into its inciting incident, which occurs when the titular elementary class pet, a lizard voiced by Adam Sandler, learns that he only has one year left of his predicted 75-year lifespan. The subsequent existential crisis seems to be setting up a fish-out-of-water story in which Leo breaks out of his fifth-grade terrarium and confronts the joys and terrors of life on the outside. However, when the students take turns bringing Leo home, the story takes an unexpected pivot. Leo, discovering a use for a lifetime’s worth of classroom observations, finds himself dishing out life advice to the confused tweens of the fifth-grade class. While Leo tells a surprisingly heart-warming story about locating one’s purpose, the film struggles to nail down a single identity of its own.
Leo’s central problem is also its central delight; rather than sticking to a single formal approach, the film is determined to try on as many hats as possible. Some of these hats fit Leo nicely. Scenes in the class terrarium see Sandler’s lizard trading sly classroom asides with his best friend, a turtle voiced by Bill Burr. Sandler and Burr sell a believable chemistry, and their buddy-comedy asides speak to Sandler’s strength for writing friendships. However, other features don’t fare so well. The film makes the bold and arguably unnecessary decision to include numerous musical numbers, although Leo never seems fully comfortable with the form, oscillating wildly between ironic and sincere, all the while never fully landing a memorable tune. Nevertheless, one Sondheim-like number at the beginning of the film merits praise for delivering an efficient and charming introduction to the cast of fifth-grade characters.
The care that went into Leo is evident from the very first frame.
Leo’s animation likewise struggles to reconcile itself. The style is beautiful, with photorealistic textures bathed in gorgeous lighting, yet this works against the film’s slapstick humor. Dynamic sequences in which Leo is battered by gravity and household objects would be funnier in a cartoonish style, but the movie’s almost serene beauty makes such violence uncomfortable. Otherwise, Leo boasts a strong understanding of what works in animated comedy. Heightened gags like a weaponized dustbuster, a recurring mob of gremlin-like kindergartners, and an overprotective drone that hovers over one long-suffering student are all perfectly suited to the medium and provide some of the film’s biggest laughs.
Leo works hard to offer a satisfying arc to nearly every member of its sprawling ensemble, and it’s this surprising warmth that sustains the film through its bumpier moments. However, the movie gets a little too comfortable with the Leo-gives-advice format, which ends up occupying the majority of the second act with self-contained episodes of side character progression. Ultimately, it’s Leo who’s denied a satisfying arc. While the character’s preoccupation with his own mortality initially seemed to pose a massive problem, he quickly forgets it once he discovers the charms of acting as a reptilian counselor. As such, there are relatively few questions left for a finale to answer, and the climactic race to rescue Leo plays out without much satisfaction.
Leo is occasionally too ambitious for its own good, attempting too many arcs and pressing too many disjointed tones together. However, the film radiates warmth and authentic charm, with even the missteps speaking to an abundance of passion and enthusiasm on the part of the filmmakers. Many of Sandler’s other Netflix projects have faced criticism for a seeming lack of effort, but the care that went into Leo is evident from the very first frame. While Leo isn’t always smooth sailing, an air of authenticity and flashes of greatness make the movie an overall delight.
Leo releases on Netflix on Tuesday, November 21. It is 102 minutes long and is rated PG for rude/suggestive material and some language.
- Leo (2023) Release Date: 2023-11-21 Director: Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, David Wachtenheim Cast: Adam Sandler, Bill Burr, Cecily Strong, Jason Alexander, Sunny Sandler, Sadie Sandler, Rob Schneider, Jackie Sandler, Stephanie Hsu, Jo Koy Rating: PG Runtime: 102 Minutes Genres: Animation, Comedy Writers: Robert Smigel, Adam Sandler, Paul Sado Studio(s): Netflix Animation, Happy Madison Productions Distributor(s): Netflix