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Leo vs. Leo: Which of Netflix’s two hit movies with the same name is vital to your life?

Sorry, DiCaprio, you aren’t invited to this one

Photo composition: Matt Patches/Polygon | Source images: Seven Screen Studio, Netflix

The churn of Netflix content makes it almost inevitable that occasionally disparate movies and TV shows will share similar titles. It’s decidedly less typical for two different films bearing the exact same title to arrive on the service at roughly the same time. But that happened in late 2023: One movie called Leo arrived on the service on Nov. 21, followed by another movie called Leo just a week later.

Understandably, this has caused some confusion among viewers who aren’t sure whether they want to watch an animated romp about a talking lizard counseling fifth graders in Florida, or an Indian action blockbuster riffing on the David Cronenberg film A History of Violence. Fortunately, we’ve put together this handy guide for telling these two Leos apart, and figuring out which Leo is right for you.

Leo vs. Leo: Animal Kindness

Leo the CG animated iguana in Netflix’s musical movie, smiling sheepishly in closeup Image: Netflix

Both movies feature a lot of computer-generated animals. If you want to see those animals talking, giving advice, and advocating for themselves, the fully animated Leo is your best bet: It stars Adam Sandler as the titular iguana, a fifth grade classroom pet who experiences a crisis of mortality upon learning that he is, in fact, 74 years old, and may be near the end of his lifespan.

Leo plans to escape and see more of the world that’s passed him by, hoping to take advantage of a new classroom initiative where each student must take him home with them for a weekend. Instead, he winds up helping each kid in the classroom through their one-on-one interactions — a neat structure that freshens the movie up whenever it threatens to turn into formula.

It turns out that in spite of Leo’s sheltered existence (he can’t even do basic addition and subtraction, because that’s covered down in second grade, not fifth), a lifetime of classroom experience has left him with a surprising amount of wisdom, and the kids take to his gentle but honest (and, in Sandler vocal tradition, somewhat mush-mouthed) counseling. It’s all surprisingly sweet.

If you prefer kindness to animals chased with cruelty to humans, however, Parthi (Joseph Vijay Chandrasekhar, professionally known as just Vijay), the hero of the live-action Leo, will work better for you. Parthi runs a popular cafe and also works in animal control. Early in the film, he subdues a (computer-generated) hyena that’s terrorizing his small town, flexing his suspiciously dexterous physical prowess while refusing to kill the animal. He tranquilizes the beast, and not long after, he’s practically nuzzling it, and encouraging his young daughter to do the same.

Later in the movie, Parthi shows no such mercy when his family and employee are menaced by a gang of criminals — which in turn attracts the attention of some other criminals, who are convinced Parthi is actually Leo, their boss’s presumed-dead scion. Perhaps needless to say, Parthi does not shoot them with a tranquilizer and then adopt them. However, fans of slicked-up action (maybe especially those disappointed with the recent John Woo movie Silent Night?) will appreciate the sheer volume and variety of violent stuff he does instead.

Leo vs. Leo: Animal Mayhem

Parthi (Vijay), on his back in the snow, shoves a broken-off tree branch into the bloody mouth of a furious CG hyena that’s lunging for his face in a scene from the Tamil movie Leo Image: Seven Screen Studio/Netflix

Though both movies encourage animal kindness, they also indulge the base desire to see animals run amok. You can tell the American Leo by the kiddie-birthday-party largesse on display: One of the big comic set-pieces is a party for a spoiled fifth grader who iguana Leo teaches to connect with her classmates. She learns this lesson too late to scale down her party, however, which features a number of exotic animals that are eventually released, running wild across the property, and, eventually, to their freedom.

Robert Smigel, the Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Conan O’Brien veteran who masterminded this animated movie, has a keen ability to zero in on what’s funny about animals without making them cutesy or sentimentalized, previously exhibited in his short-lived TV Funhouse show and his best-known comedy creation, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. In other words, you can tell his sympathies sit with these creatures, who are often more immediately likable than their human counterparts, without the movie laying it on too thick.

The Indian Leo, in both its kindness and its mayhem, tends to use animals more like CG props. That CG hyena spends way more time snarling and scrapping with Parthi in an extended action sequence than it spends as his friend. When the hyena returns to the narrative, well, let’s just say it’s not for cozy snuggling on the couch. This is all to say that if you’re craving genuine mayhem with a generous slide of blood and teeth-gnashing, go with the live-action(ish) Leo. But if you want the animal mayhem to be righteously well motivated (and make any elementary-school-aged kids in your house laugh), the fully animated one may be a better bet. (It does depending on whether your household elementary schoolers are gorehounds.)

Leo vs. Leo: Musical Interludes

Big-budget Indian blockbusters are more likely to fully engage with pop music and musical sensibilities than their American counterparts. (Recall that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s idea of a big, bold, outside-the-box musical moment involves snippets of Fleetwood Mac played as needle-drops in Guardians of the Galaxy movies.)

By those standards, the live-action Leo is relatively restrained, in the sense that it features just one large-scale song-and-dance number, which happens during a flashback relatively late in the movie. It does, however, blast several descriptive theme-song-style tracks over pivotal scenes, essentially assuming the voices of characters, even though they aren’t literally singing or dancing on screen. While this is not the Leo that’s actually about fifth graders, it’s easy to imagine American kids that age endlessly chanting the English lyrics to “Badass.”

The animated Leo really shouldn’t have the element of surprise on its side: For decades, Disney lured American audiences into assuming that virtually all animated movies would be at least semi-musical. Plus, Sandler was initially known for doing silly songs on Saturday Night Live, while Smigel has penned his share of memorable songs. (He has a writing credit on the Dunkaccino ad from Jack and Jill.)

Even so, animated Leo’s full song score feels unexpected, maybe because it often has a minor-key, Broadway-deep-cut melancholy and a lack of hit-single bombast. Netflix has conveniently compiled the whole soundtrack into one supercut, so if you want a sample of an uptempo (but still angsty!) number, there’s one around the three-minute mark.

Later, around 10:50, you can check out “When I Was Ten,” which is especially easy to picture as performed by a school play ensemble. (It hits better in context of the full film.) So if you’re after pumped-up catchiness, and maybe a gym soundtrack as you work the bag or pump the iron, the non-animated Leo will get you going. If you want a stronger emotional connection (and, yes, some funny lyrics), go with Smigel. And if you’d rather just listen to the above loop of Al Pacino rapping about coffee… are you me?!

Leo vs. Leo: Cinematic Universes

You wouldn’t necessarily know this by watching it, but the Indian Leo is the third film in what fans have dubbed the Lokesh Cinematic Universe, named after writer-director Lokesh Kanagaraj. Leo and its sibling films, Kaithi and Vikram, don’t follow the same storyline, but they’re set in the same world, featuring an ongoing clash between law enforcement and vicious drug cartels. (The title character in Vikram does make a vocal cameo in Leo.)

Sequels to all three movies are planned, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see further character crossover. The American Leo’s Happy Madison branding, meanwhile, comes from Adam Sandler’s production company — not a cinematic universe per se. But Happy Madison movies do sometimes contain references and Easter eggs related to past Sandman ventures. Leo, for example, includes a bobblehead of the character Chubbs from Happy Gilmore, the bike helmet from Hubie Halloween, and the usual cast of Sandler regulars in voice-over roles: Nick Swardson plays another class pet, Rob Schneider is the school principal, and a bunch of newer SNL folks (Heidi Gardner, Cecily Strong, Paul Brittain, and Chris Kattan) round out the cast.

To be honest, neither movie’s vague connections to other movies will likely have much net effect on which one you watch. That said, keep in mind that if you want to spend a couple hours in a universe without Rob Schneider, but absolutely insist on watching a 2023 movie called Leo, the Lokesh Cinematic Universe is your only option.

Leo vs. Leo: Life Lessons

Leo the animated iguana sits on the chest of an elementary-school-aged girl with red hair and pink glasses, and probably shares an important life lesson in a scene from Netflix’s animated Adam Sandler feature Leo Image: Netflix

Leo the lizard gives sweetly cantankerous instruction to 10-year-olds on how to be a better friend, own your individuality, and talk about your problems. Leo the possible ex-gangster and hyena-tamer offers lessons that are, perhaps, a bit trickier to parse. Early on, he imparts to his children the absolutely unacceptable nature of murder, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that he is actually very, very good at murder, and the movie is very, very good at placing characters in situations where gory stabbings and shootings are the only available defense.

Look, it really depends on the area where you’re in need of life advice, but the lizard might have the edge in terms of everyday occurrences.

Leo vs. Leo: Running Time

One Leo is 164 minutes and the other is 102 minutes. In the interest of avoiding the great running-time debate that the convenience of streaming has exacerbated, I can only conclude that you should watch them both.