“Leo,” like many recent animated films, doesn’t have a terribly scary villain, and even the antagonistic replacement Mrs. Malkin isn’t that scary once we get to know her. However, in this story – which Sandler and Paul Sado co-wrote with Smigel – we carefully and quickly move past the concept of Leo running away from home from elementary school to live in the natural world. (In one scene midway through the film, Leo tries to point out to one of the children that animals don’t always like being locked up, but he cuts him off before he can get his point across, as if the film didn’t quite want to grapple with a main character who feels more comfortable as a pet.) Instead, “Leo” comes across as something of a lighthearted ode to the value of teaching. While the script makes some not-so-subtle commentary on helicopter parenting (almost literally in one case, as one of the students is constantly followed by a drone so the parents know what he’s doing), “Leo” is as much about the life lessons that the titular old lizard convey because it is about highlighting the value that a good teacher can create for a group of students.
Of course, since Leo’s influence on the kids in the classroom is a big part of the story, thinking about “Leo” in the context of Sandler’s other animated films is a bit of a challenge. While the Hotel Transylvania series is different in many ways, the real surprise is that the tone seems a bit more restrained than the zany humor and style of the Halloween-inspired series. That’s not automatically a bad thing, but “Leo” begins and ends at a lower energy level, energized a little more than the elderly lizard at the center of the story, but never at the same speed as the Genndy Tartakovsky-directed films. Just as Leo is content with a slower pace, so is the film.
“Leo” is, among other things, a very cute animated film. It’s adorable (and its cast, with lots of real children, several of whom are part of the Sandler family) and a great addition to Netflix Original’s huge lineup of animated films. Every element of the story, from the self-aware songs to the commentary on modern parenting and technology, works well enough without feeling unusual or transcendent. Charm doesn’t make an animated film perfect, but as “Leo” proves, it can keep the whole family entertained.
/Movie rating: 7 out of 10