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Adam Sandler does That Voice again in the animated movie "Leo," when bringing a slight personality to a 74-year-old class lizard. It’s that gurgly, raw monster baritone that he’s been doing for years, the one that probably invented phrases like “Shibbbittty bobbity dooo!” and made for big laughs on “Saturday Night Live”’s Weekend Update. Sandler does the voice again, gentler but with more congestion, in a vehicle that should be fun—voicing an old lizard who covertly imparts perfect life advice to quirky fifth-graders. And yet the Sandman’s modern lazy artistic side takes over, fully flexed in this Netflix project rife with stiff animation and awkward gags. Even the spare musical numbers with Sandler doing That Voice are underwhelming.
“Leo” has self-awareness with a slight adult edge from the beginning, so it gets the reference to E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web out in the open early. It's the book the students will have to read, which they groan about while fearing their curmudgeonly substitute, Ms. Malkin (voiced by Cecily Strong). But therapy is larger on the minds for this story, and each time 74-year-old lizard Leo goes home with one of the students for the weekend, he both reveals that he can talk and also that he knows what each child needs to hear. One girl is losing out on friends and connection because she talks too much; a sheltered boy (who is even followed around by a dutiful drone) learns to climb walls and dangle over the side; a snotty girl realizes that while her father (Jason Alexander) has success as Dr. Skin, it doesn’t mean she's better than her classmates; a lovable lunkheaded boy says he doesn’t know where babies come from.
Right, the whole talking lizard thing. The original script by Sandler, Robert Smigel, and Paul Sado is incredibly pat and treats this element as a poorly kept secret. Sandler’s scaly shrink asks each kid not to tell anyone else, to preserve how what he is telling them is special. In one of this overlong movie’s conflicts, everyone eventually realizes that the class’ favorite lizard is beloved for that exact reason. But it's not magical that Leo speaks, and it's not as big of a deal as the secrecy warrants; it's just the script trying to give Sandler a chance to be a cute, wise animal. What more do you want, "Leo" asks. There’s also a turtle named Squirtle, voiced by Bill Burr, who antagonizes Leo and his therapy pursuits and is generally the source of the story’s offhand urination jokes.
This babysitter of a movie is, at times, inexplicably, a musical. Not in a grandiose uniform sense. But in some of its sequences about Leo’s impact on the young ones, there is some singing before directors Robert Smigel (who wrote the songs), Robert Marianetti, and David Wachtenheim shuffle on. Emphasis on some, as the musical numbers are cheap, whether it’s their short length, their spare piano and light strings arrangement, or the lack of choreography. “Leo” hopes to compete with other animated movies that are soundtracks first and stories second, but the cut corners are too obvious.
"Leo" can sometimes have a jolt of energy from its slapstick sequences or its bright color palette, in which Leo the lizard flies through the air, floats on a bubble, or meets other talking animals. But it's all defined by its assembly line animation, in which the spell of watching life-like characters and settings can be easily broken by looking at the backgrounds of shots for just a few seconds. Humans and talking animals alike have incredibly similar eyes that rarely blink. They are always upright, and the Playdoh-skin-texture human beings are rigid in their movements as if trapped looking at a wall in “The Blair Witch Project.” To be extremely clear, this is not on the animators but on the project’s overall ambition and standards. The movie also crams in awkward product placement (Cheetos, a family portrait with Progressive mascot Flo) and cheap visual gags whenever it can—the kindergarteners' heads are giant balloons with eyes on one side, their chaotic energy a stand-in for the innocuousness of the Minions.
For all of the comic forces in the production, including that of the TV Funhouse folk, the funny factor in “Leo” is lacking aside from a few lines here or there. It's amusing, though, when Burr's Squirtle calls the events "an E.T. scam," as if that's how this movie was pitched. But "Leo" also proves just how weird it can be when a movie is too literal when providing adult humor. (An offhand "Mr. Skin" reference should be fun for parents to explain to their kids.)
As Roger famously said in his "Scooby-Doo" review, and again in his "Scooby-Doo: Monsters Unleashed" review, "I am not the right person to review this movie." Therefore, I have to note that the advice Leo dispenses, albeit from a familiar voice that itself has been lazily repurposed just with more phlegm, might be of some value for some of the fifth-graders who watch this movie. But with the virtue of my age, I have known lizards like Leo, and this incredibly lazy bid at charismatic sentimentality known as "Leo." They are not to be trusted.
Available on Netflix tomorrow.
Adam Sandler as Leo (voice)
Bill Burr as Squirtle (voice)
Cecily Strong as Mrs. Malkin (voice)
Jason Alexander as Jayda's Dad (voice)
Rob Schneider as Principal (voice)
Sadie Sandler as Jayda (voice)
Sunny Sandler as Summer (voice)
Jackie Sandler as Jayda’s Mom (voice)
Heidi Gardner as Eli’s Mom (voice)
Nick Swardson as Bunny (voice)
Nicholas Turturro as Anthony's Dad (voice)
Robert Smigel as Miniature Horse (voice)
Jo Koy as Coach Komura (voice)
Stephanie Hsu as Skyler's Mom (voice)
Kevin James as Ace (voice)