Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years, his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big-budget studio comedies, becoming thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join Ben Sears and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley. (If and as Happy Madison Productions releases new films, as they have in this instance, Ben will return to the Happy Valley.)

Adam Sandler has come a long way since 2002. Back then, he was 36 and had yet to marry or become a father. Eight Crazy Nights was only the seventh Happy Madison film, and while it was far from the nadir of the production company’s output, it did come sandwiched between The Master of Disguise and The Hot Chick. Now, Happy Madison returns to the animation genre with Leo, and the contrast between the films reflects more than a gap in time for Sandler.

Streaming on Netflix beginning Tuesday, Nov. 21, Leo bears only a few resemblances to Eight Crazy Nights beyond the animation medium. The Sandler of 2023 doesn’t feel the need to play the coolest guy (or iguana, in this instance) in the world. The Sandler of 2002 was too concerned with cultivating his on-screen persona as the It Guy of the comedy world, content to throw himself into a role and donning a goofy voice. Yes, Sandler gives Leo, an aging iguana stuck in a fifth-grade classroom since 1949, one hell of a goofy voice; it’s essentially his stock Elderly Long Island Jew voice. But it’s far from the “look at me!” bravado that marked the early phase of his career.

I see Sandler approaching this phase of his career and life as most men of his age would – hoping to make it better for his kids and family. Maybe his two daughters, Sadie and Sunny (who both have voice roles in this film), have aged out of the kinds of kid-friendly comedies that Leo belongs to, but perhaps he wants to have produced at least one animated comedy his future grandkids could watch.

All I know for certain is that Adam Sandler should team up with Robert Smigel more often, as Smigel’s comedic sensibilities match perfectly with Sandler’s energy more often than not. You may recall that Smigel’s directorial debut came in 2018 with the underrated The Week Of, where he injected a much-needed shot of comedic adrenaline into a stale premise, making one of the best Happy Madison films yet. Smigel co-directed Leo, along with Robert Marianetti and David Wachtenheim, and co-wrote the screenplay along with Adam Sandler and Paul Sado. Oh, yeah: He wrote the songs, too. Smigel brings some much-needed Airplane!-style zany humor to the film, often leaning into the lunacy afforded by the animation genre. I was frequently reminded of Hotel Transylvania, Adam Sandler’s other animated franchise, especially in the way both films utilize the characters’ almost literal plasticity to garner laughs. That being said, the designs of nearly all the human characters made me unhappy in a visceral, nauseating way that I can’t adequately explain.

There’s almost a fun game to be made of the film where you try to guess which gags were written by Sandler and which were written by Smigel. The hovering parents who go so far to protect their child that they literally dress him in a hazmat suit? Gotta be Sandler. Cutting back and forth between Jason Alexander’s dopey father character as he completes his song-and-dance routine off-camera and Sadie Sandler’s Jayda? Smigel. Imagining all the kindergarteners as walking, talking single-celled organisms incapable of articulating anything comprehensible? Smigel again.

But for all the surface-level observations about the kids and the parents of 2023 that likely originated from Sandler, there’s a genuine tenderness, as Leo looks less on escaping his cage and seeing the world and more on improving the lives of the kids he sees every day. Out with the Leo who’s content to simply observe the world around him, in with the Leo who spends his weekends singing and charming his way into the kids’ hearts. Sure, the film runs out of steam in the second half and tacks on one too many unnecessary plot roadblocks, but the highs in Leo are high and the lows aren’t terribly low.

The Adam Sandler of old, frequently criticized for prioritizing a vacation over making a funny movie, feels almost like a long distant memory at the end of 2023. He seems more content to pass off lesser-than projects like Home Team and The Out-Laws to his friends and more focused on creating memories and movies with his family, where he can impart some of his wisdom onto them in the only way he knows how: making a film. That leads me to wonder what the Sandler of 2002 would think of the Adam Sandler of today, who often smirked at the sentimentalism on display in his recent films. He’d probably give him a noogie.

  • “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: Chris Kattan gets maybe a line or two as an alligator in the film’s final 20 minutes, but the real winner here is someone we’ve seen a lot recently. Idina Menzel, who made an impression as Sandler’s wife again in You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, gets an uncredited role as the original teacher’s singing voice. I see what you did there, Mr. Sandler.
  • Just Go With It: The Happy Madison Promise. I mean, the drone following and chaperoning the kid’s every move strains credulity, to say the least, but I’m willing to give it a relative pass since Leo clearly doesn’t take place in any kind of grounded reality.
  • Fart Joke Counter: None! However, there are a few vomit- and urine-based gags involving the original teacher and Squirtle, respectively.
  • NEXT TIME: Thus closes the busiest year for Happy Madison since 2015. We’ve covered a whopping four new releases, and they’ve all been relatively pleasant. Nothing is written in stone just yet, but we’ll allegedly be getting Sandler in dramatic mode with the long-delayed Spaceman in early 2024. Beyond that, nothing has been announced.