I know, animated talking-animal movies probably give you hives at this point, but Leo (now streaming on Netflix) is one of the good ones. That might be a double surprise, since it falls under the banner of Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company, which, frankly, has churned out more than its fair share of stinkers. But considering this movie, You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah and Hustle, the Sandman appears to be on a bit of a roll. He and Bill freakin’ Burr co-star as the voices of, respectively, a lizard and a turtle who aren’t quite content to be forever bored as pets in a classroom full of mildly deranged fifth graders. But the hook is, maybe they can actually help them with their mild derangement!
LEO: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: WARNING: There is singing in this movie. Not belt-it-out Broadway-style Disney-musical oversinging singing – more like funny little snippets that add color to the story, less like that hey-let’s-write-a-song-that-your-kid-will-play-over-and-over-and-over-again-unto-madness “Don’t Talk About Bruno”-type baloney. Anyway, it’s the day before the first day of the last year of elementary school, and the kids aren’t alright. They’re stressed out about this and that, maybe because their childhoods are slipping away like sands through the hourglass, maybe because their parents are lunatics, maybe because their teacher is pregnant and going on maternity leave and they’re about to be stuck with an ol’ battleaxe of a substitute teacher. Everyone thinks childhood is so easy. But sometimes it really sucks eggs and rocks!
In the corner in the terrarium are passive observers to the annual drama, the Statler and Waldorf of the fifth-grade class: Leonardo (Sandler), a tuatara, and his roommate Squirtle (Burr), a turtle, are the class pets. They’ve seen it all and are pretty jaded and ho-hum about it, although they wouldn’t mind relocating to another room so they can learn something different than the usual fifth-grade stuff. They’re getting up there. We don’t know quite how old Squirtle is, but Leonardo is 74, and – wait, what the hell is a tuatara? Good thing I looked it up: It’s a lizard species from New Zealand that’s like a stubbier version of an iguana; there’s more to it, but really, why bother? They live a long time, and Leo – he prefers Leo – has learned enough math to realize that, since tuataras’ life expectancy is 75, he suddenly finds himself in one of those whaddaycallits, y’know, an existential quandary. The reaper is comin’ to get him, and he’d like to get outta his cage, maybe see the Everglades before his time comes.
Now, about this school – no, this reality. It’s nutty. The kindergarteners are little feral dead-eyed piranhalike humans, swarming and biting things. There are too many kids named Cole (Leo says he remembers “the Justin avalanche of 1991,” but what about the Great Jennifer Inundation of 1985?). There’s a tech device known as the Hovernator, an apparently artificially intelligent drone-bot that buzzes over the allergy-stricken kid so his helicopter mom doesn’t have to. And the sub, Ms. Malkin (Cecily Strong), is a wild caricature, a sawed-off wad of angry flesh who willy-nilly doles out demerits, whatever the H those are, and surely goes home to eat Chef Lonelyheart’s Soup for One.
It’s a mildly surreal setting, but you have to accept that when the animals are talking. Malkin establishes a new lesson in responsibility: Someone has to take one of the class pets home every weekend. Voila (and please pronounce it VOY-lah)! This is Leo’s opportunity to R-U-N-N-O-F-F. He goes home with the girl who talkslikethisinanendlessstreamofinanechatter and, well, instead of dashing out the window, Leo ends up, like, counseling her? He learns that she struggles to make friends, and gently suggests she chill on the ratatatatatatatatatatatatat talking and ask people questions in order to get to know them better. And it works! Next is the Hovernator kid, who Leo helps escape the all-seeing eye above him. Then, the rich popular girl who feels pressure from her high-maintenance parents to be All That, and Leo teaches her – in song, even – “It’s not bad at all to be not that great.” This guy. He’s good. Like a pro, actually. I think he could’ve cured Tony Soprano’s mommy issues!
Watching Hearing: The Sandler-Burr exchanges are nicely done – they fall into odd little patter-banter that isn’t just more Odd Couple riffing, but an effortlessly funny subtextual exploration of the relationship that’s formed between two reptiles who’ve been involuntarily stuck in the same tank with each other for, apparently, decades. That, and Sandler Funny Voices through this movie with mighty eccentricity and weirdness.
Memorable Dialogue: Two kids struggle to comprehend the tyranny of Ms. Malkin:
Kid 1: What’s a demerit?
Kid 1: I think he plays for the Clippers.
Sex and Skin: A weird speech about a cloaca aside, none.
Our Take: There’s an almost-perfect amount of singing in Leo. My kid still groaned every time the characters broke out into song, but when he realized the musical ditties were funny, it smoothed down his rumpled feathers. And that’s the key here – Leo is consistently funny, sometimes in a nudge-the-parents ever-so-slightly-edgy way, sometimes in a broader sense, with sight gags and slapstick and character-based eccentricities. The comedy is offbeat enough to establish this story as satire, a slightly barbed spoof of helicopter parents, ineffective educators and the trials of growing up. And of kindergarteners. The depiction of kindergarteners as strange little animals strikes me as more realistic than the overly precocious children we’ve seen in far too many hacky comedies.
But as spoofy as Leo can be, it touches on some honest truths about the lives of children. I thought of the scene in Bowling for Columbine (bear with me here) where Michael Moore asks Marilyn Manson (like I said, bear with me here) what he’d say to the perpetrators of the Columbine school shooting, and Manson says he wouldn’t say anything, because he’d listen to them, since it’s obvious that nobody did. Such is the heart of this story, where Leo the unofficial child psychologist tunes in to children’s struggles, and helps them understand the value of humility or attain freedom from constant smothering attention or to listen to others as they’d like to be listened to. Beneath the silliness and satire is deep, rich sweetness.
Sweeter still is how the story eventually turns toward the substitute teacher, who’s more misunderstood than an autocratic easy-target villain. Granted, the story also complicates itself with a partially realized deception subplot (Leo makes each kid keep his ability to talk a secret, which Squirtle deems “an E.T. scam”) and a somewhat unnecessarily perilous/action-derived climax. But Leo is too funny and clever to warrant much nitpicking. Most clever among its many clevernesses is how Leo doesn’t just talk, but talks with the intent and purpose that few of his cinematic ilk have. Talking-animal movies so often feature otters and eels and gorillas and yaks who yak yak yak, jabber jabber jabber, blib-blab blib-blab blib-blab, annoyingly and endlessly, in pursuit of a joke, or to further the plot, or to fill time. The world of Leo would be a lot worse for its children characters if the animals didn’t talk, and that’s some succulent irony worth relishing.
Our Call: Leo is just damn delightful. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.