Leo is a hilarious animated musical about a tuatara reptile stuck in a fifth grade classroom’s terrarium since 1949. 74 years of watching kids come and go has given him keen insights into growing up. A mean substitute (Cecily Strong) teaches responsibility by assigning the class pets to the children over weekends. Leo decides to escape after learning he has just a year to live, but ends up having a transformative impact on the kids as their new best friend.
Adam Sandler co-writes, produces, and voices Leo with an all-star team of veteran animators. Directors David Wachtenheim and Robert Marianetti “had to interview for the job like everybody else.” Sandler was excited by their approach. He wanted “a musical that kids can relate to” after trying “to watch Grease one day with his girls,” then “realizing that maybe the sexual content wasn’t really appropriate for them.” Animation legend Robert Smigel, who also produces and shares a writing credit, “got involved” after the script’s “initial draft” and “had the idea of the class lizard who has been observing kids for 70 plus years.”
Leo brilliantly mocks helicopter and bulldozer parents for being overprotective. Marianetti comments, “Adam’s mandate wasz, ‘Let’s make a film for the whole family. Kids can watch it, and their parents, at the same time, can be getting another message.'” The filmmakers also get big laughs with their depiction of kindergartners as “drooling, wild, almost alien-like creatures.” Sandler portrays most of the feral youngsters by “speeding up” his voice. The directors spent “three and a half years” working with “super talented people” that became a “family.” You can read our complete interview below with David Wachtenheim and Robert Marianetti, and watch the video interview above.
MovieWeb: Great work guys. I saw the film cold and wasn’t aware it was a musical. Talk about working with Adam Sandler and Robert Smigel on this brilliant idea of a singing lizard in a fifth grade terrarium.
David Wachtenheim: Well, the story is that Adam wanted to watch Grease one day with his girls, who were maybe nine or 10 at the time, and then realizing that maybe the sexual content wasn’t really appropriate for them. He thought it’d be great to have a movie about kids in elementary school, that was a musical, and that kids can relate to. That was the initial concept. There was an initial draft of the script based on that. Then Robert Smigel got involved. He had the idea of the class lizard who has been observing kids for 70 plus years and maybe has something to offer; his take on kids and their problems. That’s where that came from.
David Wachtenheim: It was always going to be a musical about kids in school, but the whole idea about a lizard facing his own mortality, and wanting to do something more with his life, and then incorporating himself into the kids’ lives was all from Smigel. The songs, people don’t expect that because it’s not really in the trailer. So it’s a little surprising. But again, it’s not like a conventional musical in the sense that the songs are a little bit comedic. They’re making fun of movie songs. They weave really nicely. We have snippets of songs, and we cut away from songs. It was always from the beginning, this idea.
Robert Marianetti: Just going to add to that. Adam loves music. It’s part of his career from the very beginning. You have to have Adam singing in it, right? And Cecily Strong is great. Jason Alexander, who plays one of the girl’s fathers, we couldn’t tell him not to sing. Having such a cast, it just lent itself, and, like David was saying, the music is a little bit subversive. We don’t have rapping lizards and electric guitars and all that. We pay homage to Busby Berkeley musicals. We also twist things a little bit, like having a song or lullaby called “Don’t Cry,” I think that catches people off guard with the message. It’s good to cry, but we do it in a different type of manner I’ll say.
MW: This is obviously a kids film, but you guys do a shot across the bow to parents which is absolutely hilarious. The drone and the helicopter parents had me laughing into the ground. It was as if to say, ‘Let’s show what the overprotective and bulldozer parents are doing wrong, as opposed to the kids being bad.’
Robert Marianetti: Adam’s mandate was, ‘Let’s make a film for the whole family. Kids can watch it and get something from it. And their parents, at the same time, can be getting another message.’ It works on a couple of different levels. So that was always in the script’s DNA and what we want to try and do. I think we were successful. It deals with kids and their issues. They can relate to, ‘My friends aren’t talking to me anymore.’ And to older people and their issues too, like when you start realizing you have an expiration date. ‘Your mortality is approaching,’ type of thing.
David Wachtenheim: It was a balance also because there was a song in the parent-teacher conference. Where the teacher is singing about substitutes and going on maternity leave. It was great for the parents, but maybe it was a little bit too much [for the] parents. We had to get to the kids’ story and Leo’s story a little bit faster. So, we lost that song. We always wanted to have stuff the parents will enjoy. We very purposely tried to keep a lot of parent jokes in there, just so the parents can be able to sit down with the kids and enjoy it on their own level.
MW: You have a hilarious gag throughout the film. The kindergartners are these feral little wide-eyed critters running around causing chaos. Where did that come from?
David Wachtenheim: That was in the original draft there. There was a description of the kindergartners as these drooling, wild, almost alien-like creatures. That was just something we just latched on to. This is a great idea because you have these little kids running around crazy, they’re just out of control. And we’re trying to make them these otherworldly creatures, make them as weird looking as possible, but you know, not completely. They’re pretty weird looking. They do kind of feel like they’re in a different race of aliens.
Robert Marianetti: Or fish (laughs). That was something really tricky to design elements for and to capture them. We wanted them to stand out, but we also want them to feel like part of this universe we were creating. It was tough. Adam and Robert kept on pushing us. Then, when it came to doing it in CG, how the eyes would work, and making sure they don’t look too bizarre like they’re from another film, which they sort of are supposed to be — it was a challenge. People have been telling us how much they love it. It captures the idea of being at that age where you’re just a ball of energy, and craziness ensues […] I want to add one important thing to the kindergartners’ voices. That’s Adam doing 90% of the kindergartners. We sped him up. Most of the kids are all Adam.
MW: What was the best and worst day for you guys as directors of Leo?
David Wachtenheim: For me, the whole process, because we go through design, and then storyboards, animation, lighting; if the next step does not thrill me and excite me, then I know there’s a problem. I’m always thrilled to see the next iteration and see how it’s just getting better and better and better. The worst day, I guess, is just coming up with a problem that you just can’t solve, whether it’s a story problem or design problem. You’re just racking your brain, creativity isn’t there, and just thinking, ‘How am I going to figure this out?’ Then you take a nap, you wake up, and you hopefully have the answer.
Robert Marianetti: The best day for me, and I sound so cliché, was getting the job. Robert [Smigel] and Adam were always saying they wanted to do something with us. We had to interview for the job like everybody else. Seeing Adam get excited when we were talking about how our approach would be, that was the most exciting thing, getting the job. And, again, cliché, the worst days: we worked as a family for three and a half years. It’s like a professional sports team. We got all these super talented people together, from the designers to working with this great animation company (Animal Logic). We felt like we were embedded, even though we were working through COVID. Then one day, it’s all like, ‘Okay, great job!’ Hopefully, the film will do the equivalent of the Super Bowl, find its audience, and do well with people, but the last day, and not having those people around you anymore, it’s pretty sad.
Leo, on the other hand, is a delight, and is currently available to stream exclusively on Netflix.