If animals in a 5th grade classroom could talk, what would they say? This is the premise of Leoa new Netflix musical.
A sarcastic turtle, voiced by comedian Bill Burr, shares a terrarium with Leo, a milder-mannered lizard voiced by Adam Sandler.
At the age of 74, Leo discovers that he has a special gift for helping children on the cusp of middle school. terribly tired of Charlotte’s website. (“No one can eat Charlotte,” Leo believes, “You just have to hear about this delicious spider for days and get hungry thinking about it.”)
Leo is a coming-of-age musical comedy with a Saturday Night Live sensitivity. Members of the cast and creative team – including Sandler, Cecily Strong, co-writer/director Robert Smigel, and animators and co-directors Robert Marianetti and David Wachtenheim – all spent time working on SNL.
Sandler even modeled Leo’s deep voice after the late talent manager Bernie Brillstein who represented a number of SNL cast members, and who Sandler describes as a sort of grandfather figure.
“We used to run around and do his voice,” Sandler recalls. “He had a very jovial and funny way of looking at things and he calmed you down when he spoke.”
The last year of elementary school can be a time when children both feel on top of the world and afraid of what’s next. There is a ton of insecurity among children Leo: the motormouth, the overconfident popular girl, the class bully with a secret, the kid who is ashamed of his loud voice.
They all need someone to talk to.
“When you’re a kid, there are things you don’t want to tell your parents,” says Sandler, “but when your grandparents visit you and you’re like, ‘God, this is painful. Let ‘Just tell someone,’ and you tell Grandma, you tell Grandpa, and that’s basically what Leo allows these kids to do.”
Smigel and Sandler worked on Leo during the pandemic. At the time, they both had children in elementary school. “They were dealing with what these kids were going through,” Sandler says, “and we were dealing with what the parents were going through. We were definitely at the heart of the problem.”
Their own children perform certain parts. Sunny Sandler plays the motormouth. Sadie Sandler plays the popular girl. Roey Smigel is a character whose parents have him followed by a drone and Ethan Smigel plays the class bully.
Leo is kid-friendly, but adults can appreciate its odd, irreverent humor, especially in the songs written by Smigel, who is perhaps best known as the mind behind Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog.
Jason Alexander voices the father of Jayda, the popular girl. The father is hilarious and full of himself. In a classic Broadway song-and-dance number, he brags about giving his daughter “extra time” on all her schoolwork, as if it were a deal he negotiated.
When Jayda tells Leo how awesome she and her family are, Leo sings to her about tough love: “Get ready. You’re not that great. The words bring her back to earth and reduce the pressure she feels to be perfect.
“You are no better or worse than any other person,” Smigel said in an interview with NPR, “I always thought that was one of the best things you could say to your child .”
To reassure the children that they are not alone in their insecurity, Leo tells them, “Remember, everyone is afraid.”
Sandler says he had many days where he was afraid growing up.
“I remember times when a child would say something that unsettled me and a teacher would notice and then walk over to you and just say something calming…and just leave you feeling comfortable and capable to concentrate again, it was very memorable.”