Don’t take the Mickey, you muppet

As a brief respite from hearing Nick Clegg pro­test again that he was the real change, I popped off to Disneyland Paris. A friend who had miserably visited a month earlier drew up a list of instructions: get there early, go straight to Peter Pan's Flight, take a Fastpass ticket, go to It's a Small World before the queue builds, turn up an hour early for the parade, and so on.

Everyone seems to loathe Disneyland and yet everyone visits it - once. It's the ultimate triumph of hope over experience: perhaps just this one time the food will be good and nobody else will be there? (On a bank holiday weekend in May?) The social scientist Alan Bryman invented the concept of "Disneyisation" to explain how the principles of Disney theme parks are dominating more of the world. The parks "provide predictable tourist entertainment, exert considerable control over their guests (including control through the use of non-human technologies), and are highly efficient in their processing of guests". Eek. I packed my bag and headed for the Eurostar.

Not finding Nemo

With the children complaining that they couldn't see any fish out of the window - an omission Disney would have corrected with a Nemo or two
on the Channel Tunnel walls - I settled down on the train to enjoy an article by Brenda McDermott, a Canadian academic who has analysed a rare piece of film in which the Muppets visit Walt Disney World. It aired exactly 20 years before the election you're all talking about, on 6 May 1990.
It was the last project that Jim Henson worked on; he died ten days after the airing. And now that Disney owns the Muppet franchise, it may not ever be seen again.

McDermott shows how the film, made to promote the planned merger of the two companies, turned into a brilliant satire. It is one of the funniest things I've ever seen, sharply subverting the classic Disney experience of sanitised, carefully constructed social conformity. First, Kermit, pleading with his friends that it might be more fun to attend the annual "Frog Festival and Bug Fry" in the nearby swamp ("You are asking us to choose between Walt Disney World and fried bugs!" exclaims Fozzie Bear), has no money for the park fees, so they have to break in, pursued by a big security guard.

The Muppets have a dreadful time at Disney. Fozzie Bear is hungry, because he cannot afford to buy any of the food he sees all around him. Snow White runs away from Animal. Rowlf the Dog, proclaiming that "the Walt Disney World is such a big place; I don't know what to do with all this incredible freedom", is instantly captured and put in pet detention. Miss Piggy is so petrified by the fast rides that she cannot speak, and so is unable to protest when she is shoved on one ride after another.Beaker spends the day with a bucket on his head. "It's really a de­lightful place, you know, oh really you don't," comments Bunsen, his companion. As McDermott notes, "Beaker's experience emphasises the reality of sound and smell, over the visual illusion of sight which the park presents." If you cannot see the fantasy, the park is hell.

Gonzo journalism

Only two characters have a good time: Gonzo and Camilla, the blue buzzardy thing and his chicken girlfriend. They end up in "Laundryland", the hidden world beneath the park where workers wash great trolleyfuls of dirty costumes, before finding their way into the sewers: "Isn't this terrific? Look what we've discovered! We're in a sewer! Ah, boy. Nothing can touch the magic of Disney."

The couple then emerge on the stage of the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, where Kermit has been chosen to play the superhero and is concerned about the violence. "You OK? You OK?" he asks, as he shoots one villain after another. Gonzo and Camilla find it boring and go back underground.

The Muppets at Walt Disney World is a clash between two visions of childhood: one emphasising social conformity as a way of protecting childhood innocence, the other experimental and dangerous. As we plodded, in a hailstorm, through pink castles and faux-American parades hosted by gloomy French staff, I couldn't shake the film's image of Mickey Mouse as a smiling businessman behind a big desk.

Having all been captured, the Muppets eventually leave Disney for a happy party in the swamp - all except Miss Piggy, who is left behind, stuck in the cement at the Chinese Theatre, crying: "Heeeeeelp!" But you know what? Call it a highly efficient processing of guests, or the magic of Disney: we had a great time.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope