The new animated film Leo feels like a passion project for Adam Sandler, who gave it his all, even though it was just through his voice, to bring a lizard alive on the screen. A lizard of all animals! Sure, there has been Rango, where Rango was a chameleon, but he could at least change colors! A lizard just sounds off for some reason, and here Sandler voices, not a young lizard but a 74-year-old one who wants to see the world, with probably just a year left before it croaks. And yet there is a heartwarming story here, where the lizard named Leo becomes the reason why the lives of fifth graders change for the better. Some stories have a plot that is perhaps too grim to be dealt with directly, and this is where children’s stories come in. Sometimes, they can harbor great themes that even lengthy novels can’t get to the heart of. The film is not flawless; it has many issues, but as an animated movie (made primarily for kids), it does a great job of getting its point across.
Leo, the lizard, born in 1949, has a mate in Squirtle, the turtle. They had been in the school as pets since the 50s, and now it was time to leave the mortal coil, but Leo’s a lizard; what does it know about what age it is going to die? It had been an easy and comfortable life—too comfortable, in fact. It hadn’t seen the jungles or been in its natural habitat even once. It had so many desires that were not going to be fulfilled, it seemed. It was good that Squirtle was there beside it, and they got along pretty well. They talked in private and were careful not to be heard by any humans, as this could lead to all sorts of experiments, like in ET. The fact that all animals could talk was not known to them, as they had never been out of that small cage of a glass tank. Leo had seen it all during the course of his life and was so full of wisdom about the human way of life that he could give solutions to any of their problems, sometimes even bordering on being problematic. The fact that it could talk got out when a fierce substitute teacher, Ms. Malkin gave the task of taking a pet home as a way to learn to be responsible. A kid took Leo home, and while it tried to escape into the wilderness, it was caught and had to survive by explaining itself verbally.
I have seen the ‘talking animals’ thing before, but there is a laid-back approach to the animation and the intimate nature of the world and how it is presented to us via the point of view of the two animals, which makes the premise very endearing. The dialogue and the overall ‘musical’ setting of the film are very disarming, and I was ready for Leo to go out on their journey. The humans not knowing animals can talk and Leo playfully hiding that fact is a conceit that could have been really boring, but here, the juvenile yet ‘old age’ voice by Adam Sandler makes the whole thing really a treat to watch. Well, the secret wasn’t the entire story. There is a lot going on in the film, apart from Leo sharing his wisdom with fifth graders and making them better human beings.
The film, directed by Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel, and David Wachtenheim, is at once a commentary on technology, new ways of parenting (which aren’t new in some sense), the education system, and most of all, loneliness and death. There are wealthy kids, kids who have helicopter parents, and kids whose lives are being ruined by technology in this movie, and through Leo, they are all given wisdom as to how they could improve. Ms. Malkin is shown as the villain, and the story’s weakest link is her character’s backstory, which is why perhaps the second half isn’t as exciting. The most touching part about the situation is that Leo’s old, essentially acting as an aged member of the kids’ family. There are no grandparents in the film, and Leo is basically that figure who wants to spend some time with the kids. In Everybody’s Fine, DeNiro goes on to see his kids, and they all find out that they had all kept secrets from him, and the family had a lot of troubles he wasn’t privy to. They had left him out. Loneliness and unfulfilled dreams are topics that have been touched on in so many films, but here, the same idea is turned into a playful narrative with a happy ending, as children’s films usually have.
The dialogue in this movie is fantastic. There are many ‘blink and you’ll miss’ details that add to the humor of each scene. I have to praise whoever chose to cast Bill Burr as the voice of Squirtle. He brings that well-known ‘ranty’ tone to his dialogue, and each line flows so trippingly that it becomes funnier with each scene. Sandler, who is also a co-writer, gets some amazing lines himself, and he manages to get the tone correct, evoking a sense of lethargy that you’d associate with an aging lizard and balancing it with the playful nature of the animated film. Leo is not the greatest animated film, but it’s a satisfying watch with lots of cheerful moments and a few poignant ones. The casting of the voice actors is brilliant, and Burr steals the show. The weakest part of the film was the second half, where the film seemed to run out of gas, as there wasn’t any real conflict to carry on. The writing could have ensured that the third act had some meat, and Ms. Malkin could have had more to go by. But in the end, Leo is well made, and the kids will surely love it, even though they might feel that the lizard cannot give solutions to all their problems. The parents surely ought to see this film, as there is a lot of criticism hidden in the film, and the greatest achievement of this film would be if the parents would take the kids to see their grandparents and let the kids be in their presence. That would make everyone’s day a whole lot better.