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Leo (2023)

Leo is kind, warm-hearted, selfless, direct, and wise, a student of human behaviour. Sound like the type of guy you’d like to spend time with over a latte and cupcake? Well…you can’t? Why not you ask? Number one, he’s a lizard and number two, he’s an animated one and the star of the new Netflix hit bearing his name. Set in Florida, Leo features the hilarious and acerbic star of the recent Netflix comedy hit Old Dads (2023), Bill Burr, the super-talented and recently retired Saturday Night Live alum Cecily Strong, and Hollywood megastar Adam Sandler in the title role as Leo. Sandler, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film, voices Leo with his quintessential spin on ethnicized accents from his SNL days as he takes us inside the angst-ridden world of a racially diverse group of fifth graders as they navigate their final year at Fort Myers Elementary School in Florida.

As we soon discover, Leo’s been around a lo-o-o-o-ng time and alongside his best friend and terrarium buddy, Squirtle the turtle (voiced by Burr), they’ve seen generations of students come and go. While witnessing the passage of another school year from behind the glass of their classroom terrarium, they are privy to the turmoil that ensues when the teacher – the young, kind, and pretty Mrs. Salinas (voiced by Allison Strong) – departs for maternity leave. The problem (at least for the students), arrives in the form of their new substitute teacher, the grey-haired, square-built, cranky, and insensitive Ms. Malkin (voiced by Cecily Strong), who brandishes a hand-vacuum like a weapon.

Why is Malkin such a problem for the kids? Well, she immediately imposes a new system of learning that centres fear and intimidation, slamming tomes onto the students’ desks and demanding their rapt attention at every turn. She’s also bound and determined to teach them responsibility which catapults Leo into another world that it decidedly outside of his comfort zone and his terrarium. You see, Malkin’s great idea is to force her young pupils to take turns taking home one of the class pets to demonstrate their ability to care for a living thing. The sometimes-contentious relationship between Leo and Squirtle is revealed through Squirtle’s jealousy when Leo is repeatedly chosen as the desired sleep over pet. But Leo has other more pressing things on his mind, like an escape to the Everglades where he intends to live out the rest of what he presumes will be a very short life.

Assisted with counting by a fellow class pet (Cinnabon, the grade two rabbit voiced by Nick Swardson) when the classroom pets are assembled on the school lawn during a fire drill, Leo figures out that he must be 74. Leo’s desperation to know his age follows a blasé comment by a parent about lizards like him living to 75. We then witness a hilarious flashback through which Leo recalls his years in the same fifth-grade classroom through recollections of wall calendars featuring Justin Timberlake, Mr. T, and the moon landing. This is how Leo recalls that he was born in 1949.

Many of the funniest sequences of the film come as Leo is taken home, time and again, by the students for overnight stays and one-by-one they discover that he can speak. As Leo soothes the frightened and bewildered children, he convinces them (individually) that only they have the special ability to understand and speak to him, in the process getting them to open up and realize how special they are.

In this regard, the movie’s message is truly beautiful and timely. You see, each child is suffering in their own way and hiding their pain from their families and classmates. For example, it is Leo who teaches the overly talkative, awkward, first-born child, the white redhead Summer (voiced by Sunny Sandler) to listen to others by asking people questions. Leo encourages a black fifth grader, Cole H. (there’s also a white Cole W.) to stop hiding his real voice from his schoolmates which he assumes is too high for a boy. With Leo’s encouragement and assurances that he sounds like a young Bee Gee (or Canadian The Weekend), Cole H. soon dazzles the school at the winter recital with a version of Wham’s Last Christmas (1986). To the pretty dark-haired, brown-skinned Mia, navigating her parents’ contentious divorce, Leo delivers a bedtime lullaby that includes the lyrics “don’t cry, it’s really annoying…we’ve all got problems, so boo friggin’ hoo.” But this is not a dig at Mia, but Leo’s attempt at reverse psychology which prompts Mia to remember what she has already learned, that crying releases feel-good chemicals that promote physical and emotional well-being.

Leo also decodes the true source of angst of the white class bully. As the biggest kid in class (because he was held back in third grade), Anthony (voiced by Ethan Smigel),  uses bullying to avoid his pain at missing his friends who have left him behind. Meanwhile, Leo also informs the bratty, entitled, quintessential mean girl, the white, blonde-haired Jayda (voiced by Sadie Sandler), that she and her family (that includes her brash dermatologist father voiced by Jason Alexander) are “not that great” in a hilarious musical interlude. Leo also coaches Eli (voiced by Roey Smigel) to assert himself by breaking up with the drone that his overly protective parents have programmed to watch his every move. As Eli sings to the drone as he writes his breakup letter, “I’m not saying that your caring is a crime, I’d just like to wipe my own butt from time to time.” Leo’s soundtrack is hilarious, insightful, and catchy.

The sequences with Eli and his helicopter Mom (voiced by SNL’s Heidi Gardner) are some of the most hilarious for the adult viewer, as is every scene with the kindergarten students who are animated in a gleefully distinct way which distinguishes them from all the movie’s other human characters. Instead of anatomically accurate heads, they are drawn with spherical skulls with fish-like eyes at the sides (instead of in the front). Their globe-like heads are too large for their puny, overly energetic bodies, and they travel in packs, chirping (they don’t speak), and frequently swarming the larger children and adults as they resort to antisocial behaviours like chewing on furniture.

It is Leo, freed from his classroom home, who shares his wisdom with the young students, inspiring them to win an academic competition – the Academicathalon – and with it, a coveted trip to a local attraction, Magic Land Park. But when the students accidentally discover that Leo has been talking to all of them, they are momentarily angered, doubting their individual beauty, and the abilities that he taught them to celebrate. Worse still, witnessing Leo’s profound impact on her class, Ms. Malkin selfishly abducts him, deserting him in the Everglades where he is surrounded by friendly and inquisitive wild animals like snakes, birds, other lizards, and the troop of domesticated animals who he had earlier helped to liberate from Jayda’s birthday party. But danger also lurks in Florida’s murky swamp in the form of fearsome crocodiles. Will Leo become their next meal? Not if Squirtle, the fifth graders, and the drone have anything to say about it!

Like Old Dads (2023), Leo pokes fun at the outlandish behaviour of overly protective parents (mainly the older millennials and younger Gen Xers)  who have gone from helicopter, to lawnmower, to drone with their controlling, child-rearing tactics. It is a beautifully rendered, funny, and sentimental movie for children and adults alike that delivers big laughs, heartfelt emotion, and timely messages. Lizard or not, it’s too bad we all can’t have a friend like Leo!