Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make Believe
(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Robert McCallum
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
For anyone who grew up from the late ’60s through the ’90s, the famous face of Ernie Coombs was emblazoned daily on our television sets. Mr. Dressup was a staple of CBC’s children’s programming, joining the likes of The Friendly Giant, along with TVOntario staples like Polka Dot Door, as virtual baby sitters for a generation of children whose parents plopped them in front of cathode ray tubes for some visual stimulation of the imagination.
Along with American imports like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Captain Kangaroo, as well as more calculated programming like Sesame Street and Electric Company, this was a rich time for such shows, where creators had large budgets and the freedom to experiment without too much corporate control merged. There was a moment in which television provided show more nourishing than the candy-coated cartoons that were also a staple of the day.
The story of Ernie Coombs’ success in Canada is inextricably tied to that of Fred Rogers, himself a subject of a truly extraordinary documentary from only a few years ago. When the CBC launched Misterogers a few years before that, Fred brought one of his puppeteers up North with him. When lured back to the states to host Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for PBS, Rogers suggested to the CBC brass that Ernie be given a chance to shine as part of his own show.
It’s telling, then, to contrast Morgan Neville’s exceptional documentary with Robert McCallum’s more middling presentation. The former is a deep examination of not only Rogers and his show, but the entire saga of children’s programming during this time, diving into notions of how a deep religious conviction helped fuel a man far more complex than his character on screen would suggest.
On the other hand, this Mr. Dressup film feels like little more than a blast of nostalgia, full of warm remembrances from friends and fans alike, but little more than an extended plug for the man’s legacy. That’s still a valid offering, but it also feels like a missed opportunity to more fitfully dive into this era, and perhaps to look a bit deeper beneath of the surface of a man made famous for donning various costumes.
We get to hear from loads of famous Canucks, from Michael J. Fox, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Andrew Phung Scott Thompson, members of the Barenaked Ladies and more, as well as fellow entertainers such as Fred Penner, as well as crew members and network executives that were on hand. All say pretty much the same thing on repeat, glowing about how awesome the show was, how much they enjoyed the ever-warm glow of Coombs’ vision, all while waxing nostalgic for this long-running show.
While making for a decidedly audience-friendly mega-dose of nostalgia, it doesn’t really come together as a cinematic documentary. There aren’t too many skeletons hidden in that famous Tickle Trunk, of course, but after a while it really does feel like the kind of thing that would play at a memorial service, or maybe some Heritage Minute celebration on the national broadcaster, rather than a fully formed film.
Again, while the Neville film feels far more like a deeper investigation, using the famous person as a starting point for larger conversations, this Dressup film is a superficial celebration by comparison. Heck, even the recent Street Gang about Sesame Street delves far more into its subject, interesting to a far wider audience than those weaned on these shows. Mr. Dressup, on the other hand, benefits entirely from an audience pool that can literally draw from generations of Canadians for a rapt audience.
However, once you accepts the limitations of the celebration, you can pick out the elements to enjoy. All the interviewees are indeed sincere, seemingly just wanting to give thanks to someone who clearly had a massive impact on their early years. Similarly, while Coombs is clearly the central focus, many of his close collaborators, especially Judith Lawrence who brought the puppets Casey and Finnegan to life, are given a chance to tell their own stories.
If the only purpose with this project is to provide an unabashed love letter to the late Ernie Coombs, then The Magic of Make-Believe pretty much accomplishes this task. There’s enough here to sate fans of the show who are looking for little more than to revel in these memories, a kind of “special final episode” where we get a chance to celebrate what came before.
Mr. Dressup: Magic of Make Believe provides a way of keeping Coombs’ legacy alive for generations to come, and for many viewers, that will be more than enough. For others, well, there are richer, deeper films worth seeking out, many that tread similar ground but manage to provide a much more rich and fulfilling experience. How ironic, then, that this feels like the Saturday morning cartoon version of a film, all flashy and fun, where the other films are more fitful in their deeper articulation about what made this era of children’s programming so ground-breaking and so important to the audiences that literally grew up with these shows.
Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe premiered at TIFF 2023 and opens in theatres on Sept. 29.
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