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'Leo' is an animated lizard with an SNL sensibility — and the voice of Adam Sandler

In the new Netflix musical comedy <em>Leo</em>, 5th graders get some friendly advice from the class pet, a 74-year-old lizard, voiced by Adam Sandler.
In the new Netflix musical comedy Leo, 5th graders get some friendly advice from the class pet, a 74-year-old lizard, voiced by Adam Sandler.

If the pets in a 5th grade classroom could talk, what would they say? That's the premise of Leo, a new movie musical from Netflix.

A snarky turtle, voiced by comedian Bill Burr, shares a terrarium with Leo, a more mild-mannered lizard voiced by Adam Sandler.

At the age of 74, Leo discovers he has a special gift for helping kids on the cusp of middle school – though he's getting awfully tired of Charlotte's Web. ("No one gets to eat Charlotte," Leo opines, "You just have to hear about this delicious spider for days and get hungry thinking about it.")

Leo is a coming-of-age musical with a Saturday Night Live sensibility. 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 gravelly voice after the late talent manager Bernie Brillstein who represented a number of SNL cast members, and who Sandler describes as a kind of grandfatherly figure.

"We used to run around and do his voice," recalls Sandler. "He had a very jovial, fun way to look at things and he calmed you when he spoke."

The last year of elementary school can be a time when kids feel both on top of the world and fearful of what's next. There are a ton of insecurities amongst the kids in Leo: the motormouth, the overly confident popular girl, the class bully who's got a secret, the kid who's ashamed of his high voice.

They all need someone to talk to.

"When you're a kid there's stuff you don't want to just blurt out to your parents," says Sandler, "but when your grandparents visit and you're like 'God this is painful. Let me just tell somebody,' 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 kids in elementary school. "They were dealing with what these kids go through," says Sandler, "and we were dealing with what the parents go through. We definitely were right in the heart of it."

Their own kids voice some of the parts. Sunny Sandler plays the motormouth. Sadie Sandler voices the popular girl. Roey Smigel is a character whose parents have him followed around by a drone and Ethan Smigel plays the class bully.

Leo is kid-friendly but adults can appreciate its oddball, 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 dad of Jayda, the popular girl. The dad is hilariously full of himself. In a classic, Broadway song-and-dance number, he boasts about getting 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 her some tough love: 'Brace yourself. You're not that great.' The words bring her back down to earth and dial back the pressure she feels to be perfect.

"You're no better or worse than any other person," says Smigel in an interview with NPR, "I always thought that was one of the greatest things you could say to your child."

To reassure the kids they're not alone in their insecurities, Leo tells them, "Remember, everybody's scared."

Sandler says he had plenty of days when he felt scared growing up.

"I remember moments when a kid would say something that would throw me off and a teacher would spot it and then somehow make their way over to you and just say something calming... and just let you feel comfortable and able to concentrate again, that was very memorable."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.

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