Adam Sandler Animated Movie ‘Leo’ Was Born Out of Trying to Show His Kids ‘Grease’

TheWrap magazine: One of the film’s directors, Robert Smigel, shares the origins of the Netflix smash

"Leo" (Netflix)

Netflix’s “Leo” began when Adam Sandler, who cowrote and produced the film (and stars as the titular iguana), watched “Grease” with his kids. Or at least he tried to watch “Grease” with his kids, before discovering that it was more mature than he remembered. It sparked an idea within him: create a new movie about modern-day kids with modern-day problems that he and his children could watch together. “Leo” was born.

Initially, it was more of a straight comedy about kids in an elementary school classroom. At the end of the script, though, it was revealed that the narrator of the movie was the classroom pet — an old lizard in a terrarium at the back of the room.

“It had some funny stuff in it, but it didn’t feel like an animated movie enough,” said cowriter/director Robert Smigel, who had worked on the “Hotel Transylvania” films but never directed an animated movie himself. Smigel was the one who initially sparked to the idea of the pet from the early version of the script: What if he was the main character?

Soon an idea was fleshed out, with Smigel recruiting Robert Marianetti and David Wachtenheim, who had worked together on Smigel’s “Saturday Night Live” shorts like “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” Leo would be a 75-year-old lizard who has seen it all and finally decides to launch a plot to free himself.

“He’ll go home with one of the kids and then escape their house,” Smigel said. But something unexpected happens when he becomes a confidant to the children. “I thought that it would be a lot of fun to have this old, wise, jaded lizard helping kids with really miniscule problems that were the biggest thing in the world to them.”

Smigel’s involvement also lent Leo a gentle surrealism, as exemplified by a subplot about a hypochondriac kid and his overprotective drone. This more gonzo approach to the movie is best exemplified by one of the kids’ dads (played with zeal by Jason Alexander) getting a musical number of his own, complete with dancing stopwatches.

“That was a point of contention all the way through the movie, because there was this belief that too much stuff with parents is going to bore the kids,” Smigel said.

People also wondered if the dancing stopwatches were, perhaps, a bridge too far. The team pushed ahead, arguing that parents should be able to laugh along with “Leo” as much as their kids.

“Why are there any rules at all?” Smigel asked.

Eventually they were successful, although the sequence wound up being slightly truncated. Still, there’s a moment towards the end where Alexander’s character wonders if he should tip the stopwatches, which Smigel said is “one of my favorite jokes.” He loved Alexander’s character so much that, he teases, he’d love to explore him further should there be a “Leo 2.”

This story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

Ava DuVernay (Maya Iman)

Creative Director: Jeff Vespa
Photographer: Maya Iman
Photo Editor: Tatiana Leiva
Stylist: Kate Bofshever
Hair & Makeup: India Hammond


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