'Leo': Adam Sandler Charms in Uneven Animated Comedy
It doesn't matter how old I am or what the project is, I will always be curious about anything that Adam Sandler is in. Yes, a fair amount of his films aren't particularly good, but I am always fascinated by him as an actor. While the vast majority of his filmography consists of live-action films, he has been known to dip his toe into voice acting on occasion. Given his penchant for silly voices, its a bit surprising he hasn't done more animated features. With Leo, Sandler returns to voice acting, taking on the role of an aging lizard and 5th grade class pet searching for meaning in his life. Based on that premise alone, I was in, as I felt that Sandler would honestly sell the character, and that the film might be entertaining. After watching Leo, I can at least say I was half-right. Sandler is quite funny and fully committed to his performance, down to the silly voice, but the film itself is a bit lackluster, repetitive, and overstays its welcome.
It's the beginning of another school year for class pets Leo (Adam Sandler) and Squirtle (Bill Burr). During an open house, a parent mentions that Leo is old, and may not have much time left. This causes him to panic and try to figure out how to make the most of the rest of his life. When an assignment is given involving one of the pets being taken home by a student for the weekend, Leo is excited, as he sees an opportunity to escape and be free. But when his plan goes wrong and the student caring for him finds out he can talk, it changes everything. Soon, Leo finds that he can help the class with their various issues, ranging from difficulty making friends to self-acceptance, and he begins to find his purpose in life.
Now, I'm not exactly the target audience for this film, as it is undeniably a kid's movie. It has a gentle, uncomplicated plot, a family friendly atmosphere, and some good ol' potty humor for good measure. Honestly, the film is kind of cute when it focuses on it primary plot. Seeing Leo help the students is a bit charming, even if his advice isn't always the most sound. Plus, the problems that the kids are dealing with feel so authentic to being a child, which is a decent surprise. These moments on their own are actually quite good, but they are unfortunately drug down by two major, glaring issues that really stuck in my craw.
For starters, the plot has a very repetitive nature that might be fine for kids, but as an adult, I grew pretty tired of seeing the same pattern over and over again. For a good chunk of the film, it follows the same cycle: Leo is taken home for the weekend by one of the students, the student finds out he can talk, Leo helps them with a problem they are experiencing, they both return to school on Monday and the kid feels better about themself, rinse, lather, repeat. This premise feels like it would translate well to television, with each episode following a kid with a problem and Leo helping them out, but as a film, it becomes tedious seeing this same process back-to-back-to-back. I wish this section of the film would have been streamlined a little more, as it is the part of the film that drags on the most. It slows the film down to a crawl, and saps a lot of the momentum out of it.
While the cyclical portion of the film is rather annoying, it is far from the worst thing about it. That title goes to the songs, which are grating and lazy to put it mildly. I had no idea that this film was a musical until it began, which I wouldn't have minded all that much if the music was any good. The first song, in which the students are singing about the start of a new school year is insufferable, and feels like it was slapped together at the last minute. Some of the songs that feature Adam Sandler are okay, but most of the music as a whole is pretty weak. Normally, I would say that kids would be fine with the music, but I honestly can't see a world where anyone will enjoy any of the songs in the film. At best, they are forgettable, but I would go as far to say that they are just plain awful and take so much away from the film as a whole.
As far as the writing goes, it more or less feels like what you would expect when you think of what would happen if Happy Madison made an animated film for children. The crude comedic sensibilities of most Happy Madison productions works rather well for a kids film, and the goofiness associated with them fits animation quite well. There are some funny moments of the film that I genuinely liked, and there is a half-decent kid's film in there somewhere, but they do get buried by the film's negative aspects. These aspects are hard to ignore, and harm the film significantly. It's a shame, because if the film was trimmed down, it might have had more of a chance of being successful, but alas, this is not the case here.
On a brighter note, the voice cast is fairly good, especially Adam Sandler and Bill Burr. Burr's role isn't much of a stretch for him, as his role plays into the cantankerousness of his stand-up persona and most of the roles he's done, but it is a type that he is so good at portraying that I don't mind it too much. Sandler does a great job of balancing the silliness of the character of Leo with a fair amount of heart. He does a funny voice, which fits the character well, but there is an endearing quality to him that Sandler brings out in the voice performance quite nicely. Also, I couldn't help but laugh at this specific noise he makes whenever Leo is startled by something, and its a fun quirk for the character. Sometimes Sandler's characters can grate a little, but Leo is more charming than one would expect. He is definitely the best thing about the film, and the only thing that made certain stretches bearable to me.
The rest of the voice cast is decent, made up of Happy Madison mainstays such as Nick Swardson and Kevin James, as well as Sandler's wife and daughters. Perhaps the best of the remainder of the cast, however, is Cecily Strong as the crotchety substitute teacher Mrs. Malkin. Strong is a performer I have loved since the moment I first saw her on Saturday Night Live, and she does a great job here. Her musical contributions are some of the better in the film, but it is the qualities of her voice performance that impressed me. It took me a while to realize that it was her voicing Mrs. Malkin, as her voice isn't as instantly recognizable as it tends to be. But it is a rather solid voice performance that shows Strong's talents off fairly well.
Leo isn't as good as it could have been, but I suppose it could have been far worse. It's not a bad choice if you need something to entertain your kids or if you need something casual to throw on that's family friendly, but I wouldn't recommend it beyond that. If this film wasn't a musical, or if it trimmed the fat off the script, it would be infinitely better. Thankfully, it has moments of reprieve that keep it from being too painful to sit through, but it is still hindered by its larger issues. Maybe it will hit differently with kids, but adults shouldn't expect too much from this one.