Spies in Disguise (2019)
Tom Holland’s recent forays into voice-acting exclusively consist of family-friendly fare. Sadly, the humdrum CGI-live-action blend Dolittle is a decidedly terrible example of this, guilty of misusing the actor’s exuberance in a story that goes nowhere.
Holland is far more successful in the world of animation, starting with the delightful Blue Sky Studios and Disney picture Spies in Disguise. The espionage comedy follows the escapades of first-rate secret agent Lance Sterling. After a treacherous encounter with a vengeful terrorist leaves the spy’s reputation in tatters, he teams up with an outcast genius named Walter (Holland) to save his career. That is until Sterling is inadvertently transformed into a pigeon in the process.
The plot of Spies in Disguise is remarkably simple, with flashy visual embellishments and meme-inspired jokes that could have tripped up its narrative in the hands of the wrong cast. Holland turns in an inspired performance, though, especially when he gets to inject soft heartfelt nuances into the ostentatious proceedings.
In particular, Holland’s ability to embody piousness without tipping towards a cringeworthy and annoying persona makes Walter’s goofiness work. This technique sustains the character’s novelty, ensuring that Spies in Disguise is gleefully entertaining from start to finish.
Pixar’s Onward dials back on Tom Holland’s more assertive qualities in favor of worry and hesitancy. Set in a world where the traditional magical practices have yielded to the functionality of modern-day technology, the richly executed animated odyssey follows elf brothers Ian (Holland) and Barley, who must harness their inner spark to resurrect their deceased father for a day.
Ian is a relatable young champion who yearns to come out of his shell as he perches on the cusp of adulthood. Growing up without a father left some missing pieces in his life, making his desire to connect with his dad beyond the grave affecting and universal.
In reality, Ian’s self-determination takes priority and has to come from within. He must face his own diffidence toward life’s challenges as well as rethink the judgemental reservations he has about his brazen but stouthearted brother. Ian’s realization that he not only needs but deserves a confidence boost recasts him as a brave hero without diminishing his idiosyncrasies. Holland’s jittery yet charismatic vocal performance is a pitch-perfect representation of Ian’s growing pains, fortifying this tried-and-true coming-of-age story beyond basic whimsy.
The Devil All the Time (2020)
Tom Holland’s skyrocketing popularity goes hand-in-hand with the curatorial expansion of the mature side of his repertoire. Specifically, he is pivoting towards main roles in unflinching, pessimistic works. Holland douses himself in grit at the head of Antonio Campos’ sinister drama The Devil All the Time. Set in the rural town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, the film weaves together multiple grisly subplots featuring a cast of nefarious characters. These unscrupulous folks somehow converge on Holland’s troubled protagonist Arvin Russell in one way or another.
Orphaned as a boy, Arvin struggles to escape generational trauma and violence. Before cancer took his gentle loving mother Charlotte and he lost his unstable God-fearing father Willard to suicide, Arvin was tinged with a sense of optimism. But the effects of Willard’s warped evangelical views have turned Arvin sour as a young man. Now a faithless cynic with a dangerous propensity to fly off the handle, he appears primed to follow in his dad’s destructive footsteps.
The film’s impressive troupe of actors populate its unruly backwoods setting proficiently. However, Holland makes the movie actually worth watching. He depicts brutality with such purposeful force that’s inexplicably bound to pure, unadulterated feeling. Although swept up in the viciousness that encases him, Arvin wills himself to rise above the macabre narrative due to Holland’s tenacity.
Additionally, fans of Holland are undoubtedly used to witnessing softness and sensitivity win out across most of his filmography. Sure, a sliver of that vulnerability is still present in Arvin — found in his trembling, furious physicality. Yet, we’re privy to a cruel streak despite the righteousness of his actions. Holland delivers this discordance without diluting its savage effects, driving the point home that a movie so unsparing inevitably leaves all our hands bloodied.
Like The Devil All the Time, the cerebrally charged crime drama Cherry is a vital inclusion in Tom Holland’s slate. Anthony and Joe Russo’s adaptation of Nico Walker’s autofiction book of the same name is far from perfect. Fortunately, with Holland operating as the movie’s fulcrum, the jagged aspects of the film soften considerably.
The actor delves deep into the mental and physical struggles of Walker’s fictional counterpart, the eponymous Cherry. The character recounts his experiences from the classroom to the battlefield in the early 2000s, dropping out of college and enlisting in the US Army. After two traumatizing years of service, Cherry returns a shattered veteran who resorts to opioid abuse as a coping mechanism for his PTSD.
In this conventional account of the fraught masculinity of a disaffected generation, Holland’s acting arsenal has never felt more authentic. He finally has ample time and space to dominate the screen and certainly wastes none of it. Every tear, plea, and shiver coursing through Holland is fully felt as he tackles Cherry’s altruistic intentions and his self-indulgent nihilistic reality. There is no distinction between fragility and resilience in the film since Holland so expertly incorporates every variation of those traits into Cherry. Here, he unveils the prowess of a true acting powerhouse.
Chaos Walking (2021)
Based on the first novel in Patrick Ness’s trilogy of the same name, Doug Liman’s Chaos Walking depicts a colony of humans settled on a planet called New World. The all-male encampment known as Prentisstown is afflicted with a condition known as the Noise, wherein townsfolk can freely see and hear each other’s thoughts. Weirdly, women don’t exist here, having been apparently slaughtered years earlier by native New World inhabitants.
Todd Hewitt (Holland) is the youngest man in Prentisstown. He has never seen, let alone interacted with, a human woman before. Therefore, when the mysterious Viola (Daisy Ridley) suddenly crash-lands on New World and they cross paths, he is forced to reevaluate everything he’s been taught to believe.
Of the numerous pacing issues and underdeveloped plot points in Chaos Walking, the movie fatally trades character development for the least engrossing world-building imaginable. For sure, the film utilizes Holland’s personable narration skills in direct contrast to Todd’s brooding exterior. But considering that the narrative’s central premise essentially amounts to unrestrained mind-reading, we end up knowing far too little about any of the main players.
Holland does his best to inject buoyancy and excitability into his lines whenever the screenplay mistakenly employs repetitive speech as an immersion tactic. Todd is definitely likable enough if a little too old to be so simple (the decision to age up these characters certainly backfired). Holland and Ridley also foster amiable chemistry that draws out viewers’ sympathy. Regrettably, all that sincerity is squandered in this lamentable misfire of a project.
Tom Holland still has a ways to go. The stuff he’s already come out with is absolutely worth celebrating, though. Starting from such a tender age, Holland’s artful mastery of empathy has hit the sweet spot of naturalism, and he is by far one of the most talented stars of his age group. His appreciable lack of pretension as well as his electrifying enthusiasm for all of his projects earns him a revered place next to hardworking performers twice his age.
Spider-Man: No Way Home, the Uncharted movie, and the Apple serial drama The Crowded Room should satiate different factions of Holland fans once they eventually roll out. I, for one, will see them all. Through careful decision-making and unwavering commitment, Tom Holland keeps building a resumé of greats.