'The Magic of Make-Believe' Is a Warm Reminder of the Importance of 'Mr. Dressup'

Directed by Robert McCallum

Starring Judith Lawrence, Bruce McCulloch, Eric McCormack, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Bif Naked, Michael J. Fox, Scott Thompson, Graham Greene, Peter Mansbridge, Andrew Phung, Fred Penner, Jonathan Torrens

Photo courtesy of TIFF

BY Rachel HoPublished Oct 10, 2023

On February 14, 1996, Ernie Coombs signed off as Mr. Dressup for the last time. For 30 years, his show, Mr. Dressup, entertained children across the country with simple crafts, skits and songs for all to enjoy. The show continued on in syndication for a decade — but for the children of today, Mr. Dressup is an antiquated show — or more likely, one they've never even heard of. Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe reminds adults of those happy memories and, with some luck, might even introduce the show to some younger viewers.

Directed by Canadian Robert McCallum, the documentary profiles Coombs's career, beginning with his days working in Pittsburgh with his friend and American counterpart Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The film takes us through Coombs's move to Canada right through to his final moments as an icon of Canadian television. Through the film's archival footage and many interviews, we recall the significance Coombs had on our childhoods, as well as recognizing the thoughtfulness that was poured into every moment of the series. 

One of the highlights of the film is the focus on Judith Lawrence, the puppeteer responsible for bringing Mr. Dressup's dependable pals, Casey and Finnegan, to life. Lawrence's contributions to Mr. Dressup have long gone unacknowledged (not for lack of trying on Coombs's part), making her inclusion in the film incredibly valuable as she finally gives voice to her experiences on the show.

The Magic of Make-Believe imparts upon its audience the everlasting impact the show had on multiple generations, with interviews from Canadian stars like Eric McCormack, Michael J. Fox, Bif Naked, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and The Kids in the Hall's Bruce McCulloch and Scott Thompson. In the film's poignant conclusion, each interviewee is given the chance to look directly into the camera and tell Coombs, who passed away in 2001, just what he meant to them and the influence the show had. These tearjerking moments are heartfelt, deepening the celebratory nature of the documentary.

Millions of us watched Mr. Dressup as children, and I'd reckon the majority of us never truly appreciated what he meant to us during those impressionable years — I sure didn't. The Magic of Make-Believe not only serves as a reminder of the joy Coombs brought to our young lives, but it also emphasizes the need for Mr. Dressup's patience and kindness today more than ever.
(Prime Video)

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