“Leo,” like a number of recent animated films, doesn’t have a terribly fearsome villain, and even the antagonistic substitute Mrs. Malkin isn’t so scary once we get to know her. But the story — Sandler and Paul Sado co-wrote with Smigel — carefully and quickly sidesteps the notion of Leo escaping his elementary school home to live in the natural world. (In one mid-film setpiece, Leo tries to note to one of the kids that animals don’t always love being locked up, but is interrupted before he can get his point across, as if the film doesn’t quite want to grapple with its lead character being more comfortable as a pet.) Instead, “Leo” reveals itself to be something of a lighthearted ode to the value of teaching. Though the script makes some not-so-subtle commentary about helicopter parenting (in one case almost literally, as one of the students is constantly followed by a drone to ensure his parents know what he’s up to), “Leo” is as much about the life lessons the eponymous lizard tries to impart as it is about emphasizing the value that a good teacher can create for a set of students.
Of course, as the impact that Leo has on the kids in his classroom is a big part of the story, it’s a bit challenging to think about “Leo” the film in context with some of Sandler’s other animated efforts. Though the “Hotel Transylvania” franchise is different in many ways, the real surprise here is that the tone feels a bit more low-key than the madcap humor and style of the Halloween-inspired series. It’s not automatically a bad thing, but “Leo” starts and ends in a lower-level gear of energy, roused a bit more than the elderly lizard at the center of the story but never with the same speedy urgency of the Genndy Tartakovsky-directed films. Just as Leo is content to move at a slower pace, so too is the film.
“Leo” is, among many other things, a very cute animated movie. It’s charming (and its ensemble cast, with plenty of real kids, a couple of whom are part of the Sandler family) and a fine addition to the vast stable of Netflix Original animated films. Each piece of the story, from the self-aware songs to the commentary on modern parenting and technology, works well enough without ever feeling remarkable or transcendent. Charm doesn’t make an animated film perfect, but as “Leo” proves, it can make for an entertaining enough time for the whole family.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10