Leonardo has lived a good life. And by “good,” I mean “boring, but safe.”
For ever so long, Leo has served as a fifth-grade class pet. And by “class pet,” I mean “creature that hangs out in a glass aquarium in the back of the room that kids barely think about.”
He’s seen thousands of those kids come and go (and more than a few teachers, too). He’s watched them move from ducktails and poodle skirts to mullets and parachute pants to—well, whatever it is that kids wear these days. He’s seen his share of bullies and geeks and elementary prima donnas file through the doors. And brother, let me tell you, he’s seen it all.
But hey, it’s a living, right? The teachers keep him fed. His aquarium comes with a handy drip bottle. His roommate, Squirtle, a grouchy turtle about as old as Leo is, ain’t that bad.
Yeah, Leo’s lived a nice life. And by “nice,” I mean “dull, but when you’re a lizard, you don’t ask for much.”
Too bad that life is just about over.
Yep, it’s true. He overheard one of the parents say so, so it must be. The average lifespan of a lizard like Leo lasts 75 years (the parent muttered to his partner). Leo, by his own rough calculations, is 74. That means his days are numbered. Soon, no more frolicking in the aquarium. No more sipping his days away by the drip bottle. Why, this might be the last group of fifth graders he ever sees.
And now, it looks like he’ll be forced to spend more time with them.
For years—decades, maybe—Leo never left the classroom. The teachers and custodians took care of Squirtle and him just fine, thanks. But an ogre of a substitute named Ms. Malkin is now insisting that Leo go home with a fifth grader every weekend.
Fifth graders are not always known for their caretaking abilities. Will they give Leo fresh water? His expected number of delectable bugs to eat? What if they just leave him in the garage? Or make him play with the cat?
Plus, spending time with children is always a bit risky for animals in other ways. See, animals can talk: All of them, apparently, can converse quite well in English. They just have a tacit agreement never to talk with people.
But you know what happens when folks—er, reptiles—get older. They lose some of their filters. They forget themselves at times. They might say things they shouldn’t. And when I say, “They might say things they shouldn’t,” I mean, “They might say something, but they shouldn’t say anything. Because of that tacit agreement.”
But with just a year to live, and with 74 years of wisdom stuffed in his scaly noggin, Leo just might have one or two things to say.
Leo, of course, does eventually speak to his young caretakers—who, all things considered, take the revelation in stride. And he doesn’t just shoot the breeze: He passes on the lessons he’s learned from a lifetime of watching generations of fifth graders pass by his beady little eyes.
When Leo’s taken home by the talkative, insecure Summer, for instance, he encourages her to ask people questions and to listen to what they have to say. He teaches the pampered princess Jayla how to relate better to her fellow students. He encourages another kid to shed his insecurities about his voice. During each visit, Leo becomes a source of gruff-but-loving wisdom. And under his tutelage, the kids become more secure, more confident and more loving toward each other.
These children’s emotional growth spurs their academic achievement, too—and thus helps their grouchy year-long substitute teacher, Ms. Malkin. This old-school teacher (as opposed to just an “old schoolteacher,” though she’s that, too) is initially a terror to her young charges, and the parents and faculty don’t like her much better. But as the students grow both in body and spirit, she garners a new level of respect. And as the film goes on, we discover that Ms. Malkin isn’t a one-dimensional ogre, but a woman filled with her own ambitions and insecurities that she, too, must overcome to reach her potential.
Ms. Malkin’s path to redemption is not an easy one, and we’ll say no more here. But in Leo, we’re not given stereotypical bad guys, just people who need some timely lessons and a bit of grace.
A bus takes on the guise of a supernatural monster.
When Leo tries to count out his years on his fingers and toes, he quickly runs out. When he asks what other body parts he could count, Squirtle says (holding a Groucho Marx cigar stand-in), “I’d tell you, but there are kids around.” He then quickly backtracks, explaining to the audience that he was talking about Leo’s tail.
Tail or not, the joke illustrates the way in which Leo simultaneously works within its PG confines and presses against them.
When Leo tries to force his way into Squirtle’s shell through the rear, Squirtle gripes that he should’ve at least bought him dinner. The class bully admits he’s insecure because he’s never learned where babies come from. Squirtle explains the mating behavior of turtles, which leads to a handful of jokes throughout the rest of the movie. (For instance, when he sees one woman carrying a baby, he mentions that the woman must not have taken sufficient care of her eggs in the sand.) Ms. Malkin has an obvious crush on the school gym teacher.
Leo shows off some unconsummated mating behavior—blowing up the region below his chin into an eye-catching whirl of bulbous color. (He first performs the act for Squirtle, showing off what he’d like to do if he manages to escape; then again for what he thinks is an attractive she-lizard.)
We see two men together at a parent-teacher meeting. While the two could be simply friends talking, you could certainly infer that they’re a couple, too. And though Squirtle appears to be straight, the closing animated credits feature Squirtle with a tattoo of Leo’s name in a heart—on Squirtle’s butt. (The turtle is apparently wearing a jock strap. And it’s not the only time we see Squirtle’s exposed rear end.)
Ms. Malkin makes a reference to the R-rated fantasy romance The Shape of Water. There’s a reference to ogling someone in bike shorts. A man stands shirtless in front of his bathroom mirror.
Leo loses a good chunk of his tail at someone’s house (after being assaulted by a robotic vacuum cleaner), and we see the cartoonish wound (including meat and muscle surrounding the bone, as if it was a little ham steak). He rubs what we’d assume would be alcohol or ointment on the wound, and he bandages it in colorful blue bandages. (His tail quickly grows back, and we see via flashback that this incident wasn’t the first time that he’d lost that appendage.)
That’s certainly not the only indignity Leo suffers, either. He’s thrown about quite a bit. He staggers around a LEGO cityscape—destroying it in a Godzilla homage—and hurts his foot by stepping on one. He falls from heights and flies into walls. He’s nearly sucked into a couple of air purifiers. He’s hit in his genital area, and someone mentions that the blow went “straight to the jellybeans.”
Rented animals at a birthday party fight viciously over scraps of food tossed in their collective pen. Those animals, and several others, are let out and unleash a great deal of mayhem. Huge alligators imperil sentient reptiles. An adult gets knocked unconscious. Another adult has his novelty hat slammed in a bus door. We see a lizard’s molted skin, which someone mistakes for a lizard corpse. A bus careens through a jungle landscape.
The most threatening species we see here are not alligators or panthers, but rather kindergarteners. They’re depicted as ravenous, chaos-inflicting creatures that feel like a cross between piranhas and Pac-Man, knocking over and swarming teachers with little provocation. (They often run into walls and doors themselves, too.)
Leo eats loads of bugs, despite the fact that they can carry on rudimentary conversations. Ms. Malkin keeps a jar of ninja star-like “demerits” on her person, and she uses them to fend off an alligator at one point.
We hear several questionable uses of God’s name. The word “freaking” is used regularly as an apparent f-word stand-in. The song that sends people home during the credits appears to be titled “When It Sucks,” with the line repeated regularly. At one point, Leo says, “Mother of Godzilla!”
Ms. Malkin makes references to previous elementary school teachers, including one who was a “closet drunk” and another who never smelled “quite right,” perhaps a reference to marijuana usage.
A student frets that Ms. Malkin’s teaching methods will cause them all to flunk, which means they’ll sent to schools “with drug problems.”
When a fifth grader grouses that reptiles “eat, sleep and poo in the same place,” Squirtle is offended. “I poo where he sleeps,” Squirtle retorts, pointing to Leo. In a moment of panic, Squirtle sprays a stream of urine, which he blames on someone else. A goldfish swims with a stream of its own excrement attached to its body. A dermatologist and father of a student is very upset when someone misspells what he calls himself (“Dr. Skin”) on both advertising pamphlets and a banner toted by an airplane. The misspelling? “Dr. Skid.”
A pregnant teacher vomits in a trashcan. Someone believes that babies are born out of the mother’s rear.
Leo sings a song about the evils of crying. “Crying’s for weaklings,” runs one of the lines. Better to toughen up, because everyone suffers. (The fifth grader to whom the song is sung believes Leo’s using reverse psychology on her, because textbooks are full of tidbits on how crying actually helps make people feel better. Later, a weepy Leo acknowledges that the student was right.)
Someone says to “take that stick out of your tush.” We hear several references to excrement (using a variety of childish terms). Sinus mucus is seen a couple of times. A student mocks Ms. Malkin by using a smartboard, referencing flatulence.
Characters lie and are asked to lie; they also disobey parents and authority figures frequently.
“Don’t ever grow up.”
You hear people say that sometimes. It’s meant to encourage people to embrace youthful vitality or optimism or joy.
I think Adam Sandler heard someone tell him “Never grow up” somewhere along the line. He took it to heart and assumed that it mainly applied to his love of bathroom humor.
Don’t get me wrong: Sandler can be funny. His movies can be heartfelt. But for those who tire of pee and poop jokes, and don’t necessarily want their kids to be subjected to an endless spray of them, Sandler’s movies can be uncomfortable, if not downright unwatchable.
Netflix’s Leo is a strong example of good and bad Sandler.
Leo delivers some very nice messages. You get the sense that the 56-year-old Sandler, who voices Leo, is trying to pass on what he’s learned over the years to the youngsters in the audience, sounding more like an older brother or cool uncle than a father figure.
In the guise of Leo, he gently tells a fifth-grade diva that she’s not as great as she thinks she is, which lifts a weight of social responsibility off her shoulders. He encourages someone else to not fret about the hair growing on his back; people will like him for how he acts, not how he looks. Be yourself, Leo seems to say. Unless you’re a jerk. In which case, a little self-improvement might be called for.
But Sandler seems to assume that good messages are best delivered with a good dose of scatological jokes, sexual asides and winks at profanity. In speaking to his target preteen audience, the comedian wants to be the most juvenile of them all.
In many ways, Leo’s desire to escape his glass aquarium for one last gasp at freedom feels a little like Sandler’s desire to escape from his own movie’s PG confines. He wants to bolt from the box (taking his young viewers with him), scamper through more mature content (without going wildly afield) and return to the PG cage before the censors are any the wiser.
You could say, I guess, that Leo is a decent movie. And when I say “decent,” I mean “decent in an Adam Sandler sort of way.”
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.