‘Leo’: Adam Sandler Charms as a Wise Lizard in Netflix Animated Comedy

Adam Sandler is an elderly iguana with a lot of knowledge to drop on today’s youth in Netflix’s “Leo,” an animated feature from Happy Madison Productions. Sandler, along with legendary “Saturday Night Live” writer Robert Smigel and Paul Sado, also penned the screenplay for this charming musical comedy that follows a group of Florida fifth-graders as they are transformed for the better with help from their class pet.

“Leo” begins at the start of another school, as the fifth-graders, with both excitement and apprehensiveness, go into their last year of elementary school. After overhearing one of the parents mention that lizards typically live 75 years, Leo, who is 74, realizes that this could be his final class of students. The semester has barely started before there is a major shake-up, as Ms. Salinas (Allison Strong), the kind, youngish teacher goes on maternity leave, and is replaced by an older, stern veteran substitute teacher, Ms. Malkin (Cecily Strong). Ms. Malkin has some outdated ideas about what is best for the students, but one thing she gets right is having the kids take turns bringing Leo home on the weekends to learn responsibility.

Up until this point, Leo has only communicated with his tank mate, turtle Squirtle (Bill Burr), and other class pets he sees during the occasional fire drill. But this changes when he starts to go home with the students. Happy Madison’s last animated film, 2002’s “Eight Crazy Nights,” was a total stinker, but Sandler, who is himself a father of two teen daughters (both whom do voices in “Leo”), has grown since then and seems to have a good grip on what tweens go through today. The same can be said for Leo, who has seen generations of children come and go through his classroom. One by one, he acts as a therapist/guru to the kids, first with Summer (Sunny Sandler), whose penchant for talking too much is holding her back socially. After he teaches her to listen, she becomes friends with popular girl Jayda (Sadie Sandler), but Jayda has her own issues with humility stemming from her obnoxious doctor dad, Dr. Skin (Jason Alexander). It is a funny, very Florida touch to have the richest man in town be a dermatologist.

We hear a lot about helicopter parents today, but here we see a victim of drone parents, as Eli (Roey Smigel) is followed around all day by a literal drone. Leo saves the poor kid from further humiliation and helps him gain some independence by helping him “break up” with the drone. Leo also finds some humanity in the school bully and helps a boy who is self-conscious about his high-pitched voice channel his inner The Weeknd. However, Leo has told each kid that he or she is the only one who can hear him, which causes problems down the road. His human antagonist is Ms. Malkin, who starts to take credit for all the improvements her students have made. Still, Sandler does have some empathy for the old lady, as it becomes apparent that she has taken a lot of crap in her own life, and she too was a kid once, after all. But after she does something inexcusable to protect her reputation, Leo finds his life at risk.

Overall, “Leo” is a cute film that both children and their parents can enjoy. It has a lot of fun milking laughs out of what it is like to be a kid in 2023. There is also some “adult” humor thrown in that is supposed to go over kids’ heads, and some jokes/gags land better than others. That trademark Happy Madison humor is still there, so this might not be the best film for adults who are not a fan of Mr. Sandler and his usual collaborators (Rob Schneider and Nick Swardson pop up in small roles). As for the musical numbers, they are not up to Disney standards, but there are a few catchy diddies. 

Leo” begins streaming Nov. 21 on Netflix.