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TIFF 2023: Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe Review

I can’t recall any point in my life where people were as stressed out and divided as they are today. Blame it on social media. Blame it on the stress of rising inflation. You can even blame it on those jerks who refuse to put away their phones at the movies. 

People just don’t know how to get along anymore, and there are few topics on which we can all agree. But if there’s one thing that unites us, it’s a sentimental attachment to our childhood heroes. 

We spend our lives pursuing happiness, but moments of pure joy aren’t as easy to come by as we age. Our hearts harden as the grays set in, and we soften around our bellies. So, we pine for the days when smiles and giggles were as abundant as wildflowers blooming in a sunlit meadow. 

Kids’ programs like Reading Rainbow and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood enter our lives when we’re at our most impressionable age. Sure, they entertain us, but they also instill crucial life lessons while inspiring us to grow into the very best version of ourselves.  

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Documentaries like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street can turn any world-weary Oscar the Grouch into a bleeding-hearted Elmo. So, when you sit down to watch Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe, prepare to experience “all the feels.” 

Director Robert McCallum’s documentary spotlights the life and career of the man behind the magic, Ernie Coombs, aka Mr. Dressup. This touching, comprehensive, and always entertaining film delights whether or not you grew up a Mr. Dressup fan.  

Prepare to laugh, cry, and reminisce in celebration of one of Canada’s national treasures. 

The doc chronologically covers Coombs’ career and personal life through archival interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and talking head segments with family, coworkers, and people who grew up watching Mr. Dressup 

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Notable interviewees include Michael J. Fox, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Fred Penner, Bif Naked, Scott Thompson, and Graham Greene. You can feel the warmth radiating off the screen as everyone shares stories about how much Mr. Dressup means to them. 

The Magic of Make-Believe presents several facts that blew my mind and gave me an even greater appreciation for Coombs. It paints Coombs as a humble and good-natured person – no surprise.

He was a talented puppeteer and cartoonist whose hard work and persistence brought his dreams to fruition. And he received his big break working alongside another children’s television icon, Fred Rogers. 

The duo worked together on the CBC children’s program Butternut Square. And when Rogers’ contract expired and he went back to America, he suggested Coombs as his replacement. 

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With his talent, imagination, and a national platform, Coombs immediately found his groove, kicking off an iconic three-decade and 4000-episode run. 

The Magic of Make-Believe offers 90 minutes of pure pleasure. It’s an uplifting doc that enriches your mind while nourishing your spirit.

McCallum begins the film with a re-creation of the Mr. Dressup set to capture the series’ warm and inviting tone. But the biggest treat is seeing Coombs’ longtime collaborator Judith Lawrence return to perform as Casey and Finnegan. 

There have been countless children’s educational programs over the years, but few have resonated like Mr. Dressup. The doc thoroughly explains what made Mr. Dressup (and the people working on it) so special.  

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Throughout the film, we see people congratulating Coombs on the show’s success, and he always passes the praise along to his cast and crew. He never let his ego get in the way of producing the best possible program. And he routinely let his collaborators bask in the spotlight because sometimes that’s what the audience wanted to see. 

The doc isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It covers the program’s existential crisis when Lawrence, a series staple, walked away from the show (taking the characters Casey and Finnegan along with her). It also delves into the tragic death of Coombs’ wife Lynn, in a car accident. 

Love is a two-way street, and Coombs cared for his audience as much as they adored Mr. Dressup. This mutual love served as a support system that enabled the program to persevere through setbacks and tragedies that would have halted most shows in their tracks. 

Like many Canadians, watching Mr. Dressup was a foundational part of my childhood. But even though my heart is full of Mr. Dressup memories, I never knew much about the man behind the tickle trunk. This film is the perfect way to address my cultural blind spot.  

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McCallum just delivered the feel-good film I didn’t realize I needed in my life. Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe is a charming, insightful, and heartwarming doc about a gentle spirit who dedicated his life to filling the world with joy.  

Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe Review had its World Premiere as part of TIFF 2023. Head here for more coverage from this year’s festival. 



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