Is “Leo” better than Disney’s blockbuster wannabe “Wish?” Yes, while it doesn’t boast Disney’s lavish production values, Netflix’s memorable and colorful computer-animated musical comedy directed by Robert Marianetti, Robert Smigel and David Wachtenheim, all veterans of “Saturday Night Live,” is a small gem. Boasting Adam Sandler and Bill Burr voicing its two talking reptilian lead characters: a dyspeptic turtle named Squirtle who is a master of mean comedy (yes, Burr) and a Yoda-like tuatara lizard named Leo (Sandler), who finds his purpose in life by advising children and helping them get through life’s challenges.
At first, a bitter Leo refers to the children in his class at Central Florida’s Fort Myers Elementary School as “fifth grade head cases” and does not have a lot of patience for them.
But when he finds out that a lizard’s life expectancy is 75 years and that he is 74, Leo has a “old-life crisis,” and his heart softens. Squirtle and a jowly Leo have lived inside a small, cramped glass box for decades, eating bugs and lettuce and sharing jokes, wise-cracks, zingers and wisdom alike. They have seen the children come and go. They love the smell of vomit in the morning. They can’t believe how many “Coles” and “Justins” there are and are horrified by “kale cupcakes.”
Squirtle makes tea using a bug on a string as a teabag. For Leo, blinking his eyes is an exhausting workout. Everything changes for Leo and Squirtle with the arrival of an old, cranky substitute teacher named Ms. Malkin (a wonderful Cecily Strong, formerly of “SNL”), She cleverly insists that each child take home one of the creatures for a weekend and take care of it. They must return alive. The children pick Leo and learn individually that Leo can talk. He swears them each to secrecy.
The screenplay, co-written by Smigel, Sandler and Paul Sado (the Sandler vehicle “The Cobbler”), seems full of the sort of advice Sandler probably offered to his own children when they were growing up, and, lo and behold, in a case of nepo-baby indulgence that has generated a lot of digital ink two of the children in the film are voiced by Sandler’s daughters: motor-mouthed Summer (Sunny Sandler) and spoiled Jayda (Sadie Sandler). There are also two Smigels in the cast. Leo reminds people that he is not a chameleon. He tries on one girl’s dental apparatus (ew). One of the children, an overprotected boy named Eli (Roey Smigel), has a drone-like AI companion literally hovering over him. In one amusing scene, the robot-drone incinerates a bag of Cheetos.
Eventually, the children come to love Leo, and with his and Squirtle’s help they even win a day trip to an amusement park. Meanwhile, Ms. Malkin becomes jealous of Leo’s relationship with her students and plots to get rid of him. “Leo,” a Netflix hit for sure, works both as a comedy about childhood and a musical coming-of-age tale. Plus, it mentions “The Canterbury Tales” and “The Shape of Water.”
The kids sing of their youth, and we see funny cartoonish renderings of them. Leo meets animals that he helped to escape captivity and other tuatara lizards in the Everglades in a weird, but loving evocation of “Pinocchio.” In the supporting voice-cast are Jason Alexander, Rob Schneider, Stephanie Hsu, Kevin James, Heidi Gardner and Nicholas Turturro. I hope to encounter Sandler and Burr’s lizard-and-turtle mismatched buddies and their talented friends again, soon.
(“Leo” contains rude humor and some suggestive language)
Rated PG. On Netflix,