There’s a war going on inside many Adam Sandler movies and the loser is frequently the audience. Sandler may be an innately lovable performer, but his sense of humor is also abrasive and immature. So for every great Sandler comedy like “Happy Gilmore” or the overlooked “Hubie Halloween” — films that strike a satisfying balance between charm and adolescent weirdness — there are also films like “That’s My Boy” and “Jack and Jill,” where our affection for Sandler can’t quite compensate for an overwhelming cavalcade of mean-spirited “jokes” that confuse bullying with whimsy.
But when Sandler delves into the world of family-friendly animation he usually sets aside his vicious streak, so his childish humor and uncomplicated moralizing can shine through. You won’t find much of his immaturity in the “Hotel Transylvania” movies or in his new animated Netflix film “Leo” — which he co-wrote with Robert Smigel and Paul Sado — as he approaches fifth-grade problems with a sweet, affable, quasi-wisdom. It’s not a particularly funny motion picture but it certainly is pleasant.
“Leo” stars Sandler as a 74-year-old tuatara, a species of reptile native to New Zealand, but which the filmmakers claim can be found in great numbers in the Florida Everglades. So, kids, if you’re writing a paper on these things, get your facts somewhere else.
Leo and his turtle roommate, Squirtle (Bill Burr), live in a fifth-grade classroom. It’s the first day of the school year and they’ve seen it all: The clingy kid whose parents are getting a divorce, the insecure kid who talks a lot, the kid with helicopter parents who employ a literal helicopter — or, rather, a high-tech drone — to constantly monitor his behavior and safety. Same kids, different year, nothing ever changes. Leo and Squirtle don’t even know how to add and subtract because in the fifth-grade, kids mostly focus on fractions.
Yet Leo does manage to learn something new: His species only lives for 75 years, and after getting some math help from the second-grade class pet he realizes he doesn’t have much time left. What’s more, he thinks he wasted his life by never leaving his terrarium, so when a new substitute teacher named Mrs. Malkin (Cecily Strong) reinstates a rule where a student has to take a pet home every weekend, he plans to use it as his chance to escape to the Everglades, where tuataras don’t live.
Instead, Leo accidentally reveals that he can talk to one of the kids in his class, and to prevent them from telling the world about his and, apparently, every other animal’s secret, he gives her helpful advice. She has a tendency to speak about herself at great length and it has made her unpopular in school, so Leo says she may want to ask other people about themselves sometimes.
It’s not terrible advice, and it works out well for her, so she keeps Leo’s secret. Leo then helps another kid write a break-up letter to the drone that literally hovers over him, which the drone doesn’t take well. The scenes of the drone trying and failing to throw itself away and eat chocolate ice cream, while somehow wearing a bathrobe, are about as funny as “Leo” gets.
At its heart, “Leo” is an uncomplicated movie that encourages kids to talk about their problems and encourages adults to listen attentively and be genuinely helpful. As morals go that’s a little simplistic, but it’s a lot more practical than the usual, hackneyed kids movie themes about why you should always be yourself or the virtues of stick-to-itiveness.
A lot of the film is just Sandler listening to kids and putting the wisdom he’s acquired to good use, which can be a problem if the advice isn’t sound. There’s one scene where Leo sings a song to a troubled child about why “crying’s for weaklings” and “lazy and dumb,” where it looks the movie has gone weirdly and completely off the rails. But then, in a welcome surprise, the scene pulls a u-turn and reveals he’s actually putting his faith in the child to know that he’s wrong and she’s right and that it’s okay to let her emotions out. It’s a gamble, and it actually pays off.
“Leo” is a musical, and not a particularly good one, with well-meaning but forgettable songs. Even the film doesn’t have much faith in them. At one point, an overbearing father, voiced by Jason Alexander, sings a song about getting his daughter special privileges at school. His daughter leaves halfway through and we miss the rest of it because it’s not important and nobody cares. This does, however, lead to the film’s weirdest joke, where a group of anthropomorphic stopwatches materialize out of nowhere to be his backup dancers, but walk away downtrodden afterwards because the cheap jerk refuses to tip them.
That’s a good, strange gag that pays off later, but it highlights that even in “Leo” — which circumvents the usual internal conflict between likability and meanness in most Sandler movies — there’s a tug of war going on. The film can’t decide if it wants to be truly bizarre, which is when it’s funniest, or simple and sweet, when it’s the most dramatically effective. These aren’t the worst problems for a movie to have, since it waffles between two positive qualities, but the filmmakers inability to capture both at the same time keeps the film from ever achieving real greatness.
Still, it’s a kindhearted and somewhat entertaining animated kid’s film, even though it literally shows a bunch of tuataras living in the Everglades. This film literally has a subplot about the importance of studying, but apparently it doesn’t think the audience is actually going to do any of it. But you can’t get mad about it: if that’s the worst problem “Leo” has, and it is, then it’s a pretty good movie.