“Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more,” observes one of the human characters in “Charlotte’s Web,” a kiddie classic that serves as both the butt of several jokes and an inspiration for Adam Sandler’s animated “Leo,” an endearing Netflix original that strikes just the right balance between heart and fart jokes.
Basing the way Leo sounds on his squeaky-scratchy, slightly guttural impression of the late Hollywood agent Bernie Brillstein, Sandler voices a crusty old iguana who’s spent three-quarters of a century — practically his entire life — trapped in an elementary school classroom. Leo’s wisdom is largely limited to what’s taught in fifth grade, though he’s observed enough kids over his 74 years that the lizard reckons he’s qualified to advise this crop. Truth be told, he’s cheaper and more consistently helpful than your typical child psychologist.
Sandler’s an old pro when it comes to animation, having voiced the lead characters in “Eight Crazy Nights” and the “Hotel Transylvania” toons. With “Leo,” he treats the project as a family affair, enlisting his two daughters, Sadie and Sunny, to play students in Ms. Malkin’s fifth-grade class (the pair also appeared in Netflix’s Sandler-produced “You Are Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” earlier this year). That’s the same strategy Judd Apatow and Robert Rodriguez have recently embraced, collaborating with their kids on movies that inevitably wind up feeling sweeter and more sincere than their adult-targeted work.
“Leo” also teams Sandler with “Saturday Night Live” veterans Robert Smigel, Robert Marianetti and David Wachtenheim. All three worked on the show’s weekly “TV Funhouse” segments (with Smigel bringing his songwriting skills to this musical assignment). Here, the trio put their heads together to direct a CG toon whose sense of humor will inevitably remind grown-ups of Sandler’s early man-child comedy “Billy Madison.” Meanwhile, younger audiences are encouraged to think of “Charlotte’s Web.”
Chances are, they already know what happens to the spider at the end of E.B. White’s book. “Leo” leverages that awareness, presenting a story in which the aged lizard senses that death is near and decides he absolutely must see the world before he croaks. Trouble is, the only way out of the classroom for Leo and reptile pal Squirtle (Bill Burr) is via student volunteers. Ornery substitute Ms. Malkin (Cecily Strong) encourages her class to take home one of the animals each weekend. That seems like a surefire recipe for mistreatment, which Leo turns to his advantage by opening his big mouth and talking to the first girl who raises her hand, motormouth Summer (Sunny Sandler). She might be more popular if she shut up and showed an interest in what other people had to say, Leo suggests — and sure enough, that strategy works.
He has good tips for the other kids too, like immunodeficient Eli (Roey Smigel), whose parents send him to school with a hovering robot nanny, to whom he writes a “Dear drone” letter (one of Smigel’s funnier songs). There’s also secretly brilliant Mia (Reese Lores), who’s struggling with her parents’ divorce; obligatory bully Anthony (Ethan Smigel); voice-cracking Cole (Bryant Tardy when the character talks, and Corey J when it comes time to sing); and a popular girl named Jayda (Sadie Sandler), whom Leo convinces is “not that great” … but in a good way (via the very funny “Extra Time” song).
It might’ve been 74 years since Smigel, Sandler and co-writer Paul Sado were in school, but as parents, they get what’s funny about today’s kids. Some observations, like the running joke in which rambunctious kindergarteners run amok (depicted as a swarm of piranha-like bobbleheads), are as true now as they ever were, but get an amusing new spin in the filmmakers’ hands.
The basic premise — seeing the world through the eyes of a (mostly) inanimate children’s plaything — hews to the formula established by Pixar with “Toy Story,” twisting it so that all animals can talk; they just choose to zip their lips whenever humans are around. But not Leo. He’s got lots of opinions, and he tricks each of the kids into thinking they’re special, which is bound to backfire when they discover that he knows all their embarrassing insecurities.
However immature Sandler’s sense of humor may have been in the past, he seems to have a pretty good handle on what makes kids tick. The movie can be making potty jokes one minute and delivering practical advice the next, wrapping with the sensible suggestion to “find your Leo.” An iguana makes a fairly original choice of confidant — slow, lazy and uniquely capable of regrowing an amputated tail — and one that seems reasonably appealing to real-life fifth graders, who could benefit from the talking-animal toon’s underlying message, that the best way to solve one’s problems is to put them into words.