HOWEVER, I'm not going to talk about any of those things that I just talked about. (As Yogi Berra would say, “I really didn't say everything that I said.”) Instead, I want to take a look at the story itself, because it's actually very sweet. It started out as a children's poem of the same name that Burton wrote in 1982, containing elements from the plots of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The central figure is, of course, Jack Skellington, he of the 400 heads mentioned above, who is the Pumpkin King of the town of Halloween. The central conceit of the story is that each major holiday has its own town, or realm. Jack is a skeleton, scarecrow, and pumpkinhead, ruling over all sorts of monsters and misfits that are associated with Halloween or with scariness in general. One especially weird character in the town is Dr. Finkelstein, obviously a Dr. Frankenstein figure, who has made himself a daughter/wife/servant in the form of Sally, our heroine. She's stitched together like a rag doll and can remove body parts and then sew them back on, an ability that serves her well at several points in the story. Jack has become bored with the ongoing Halloween festivities that he has to oversee every year; Sally hears him sing about his frustrations and sympathizes with him. Love story foreshadowing! But we have lots of ground to cover before Jack and Sally will get together.
So our medley starts out with a section about the town of Halloween. When we get to the “What's this?” section we've reached the point in the story where Jack has wandered into the forest and opened a door in a tree (hey, it's not supposed to be realistic!) that leads him to the town of . . . Christmas. My favorite line? “There're children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads.” Jack sees in all the toymaking, warmth and merriment that he's missing something in his own life: “This empty place inside of me is filling up.” So in a burst of misguided enthusiasm, he decides that he wants to take over Christmas and play the role of the mysterious “Sandy Claws” himself. Sally doesn't think that this is a good idea, but Jack doesn't listen to her. Everyone in town gets busy making toys, and three little imps are given the job of kidnapping the actual Santa Claus, thus our next section in the medley. They carry out the assignment but then decide that they won't deliver Sandy to Jack but instead will take him to the villain of the film, the Oogie-Boogie Man. (This to me is where the plot starts to unravel a bit, but we do have to have a real villain, and in Halloween town it's perfectly okay to be a werewolf, ghoul, goblin, or vampire. So we need someone outside the realm of even those creatures, thus a bogeyman or boogieman, a figure that pops up in many cultures and is often used to frighten naughty children. Who knows? Maybe the child Tim Burton was terrorized by him.) The Oogie-Boogie Man (hereafter referred to as the OBM) is especially fond of gambling and carries out a game of chance that involves Santa Claus and Sally (who's trying to rescue him). The losers will end up in a fiery pit in the middle of the floor. (Shades of Faust!) He sings his bluesy OBM song while exulting over his prisoners.
Meanwhile, Jack is going on the same journey that Santa usually takes, delivering presents to the children of the real world, using a coffin-shaped sleigh and skeletal reindeer. Sally tries to stop him by pouring fog juice from Dr. Finkelstein's laboratory into the town fountain, but Jack's dog, Zero, guides him through it with his glowing jack-o-lantern nose (a clear reference to Rudolph but also to the Grinch's dog Max). Alas--the presents Jack delivers terrify their recipients. The residents of Halloween haven't made toys to gladden the hearts of real little human children but instead items such as shrunken heads, Christmas-tree-eating snakes, ducks with teeth, and (my personal favorite) vampire teddy bears. The phone calls pour in to the police, Jack's sleigh is spotted, and he's blown out of the sky by cannons. Miraculously he survives, falling (where else?) into a cemetery. Although somewhat disheartened by the failure of his expedition, he decides to get back to Halloween, free Santa, and set things right. The climax of the story occurs with the confrontation between Jack and OBM which takes place as Sally and Santa are on the point of sliding into the fire. Just as the OBM is about to escape, Jack spies a loose thread on his robe and pulls on it. The whole robe unravels, showing that underneath is simply a pile of insects, snakes, spiders, scorpions . . . you name it. All of these creatures fall into the fire except for one bug, which the newly-freed Santa squashes with his foot. So once the OBM is unmasked, or unrobed, he's very easy to defeat. Santa then rushes off to deliver the correct presents, but not before telling Jack that the next time he decides to take over someone else's holiday he should listen to Sally: “She's the only one that makes any sense around this insane asylum.” (Best line in the movie.) The town is overjoyed that Jack is alive after all, and Jack says, “It's good to be home” as the Halloween song is performed again (where our medley ends). After Santa makes a supersonic trip around the world to replace the ghoulish presents with kid-friendly ones, he returns to Halloween where he makes snow fall on the town, thus causing the residents to do all sorts of healthy, normal things such as making snow angels, ice skating, and throwing snowballs. Finally, Jack and Sally stand on a hill under the full moon and exchange their first kiss. (Even though Jack, technically, doesn't have any lips.)
So is there any deeper significance to all of this? Hard to say. I thought before actually watching the film that its point would be that Halloween was “better” than Christmas in some way. Better to be a ghoul than an elf, as it were. But as you can see from the above plot summary, the point is very different: Santa Claus is a positive figure who gives good advice; the town of Halloween thoroughly enjoys the snow that he brings; and Jack falls in love with the woman who's been rooting for him all along. All very conventional. Halloween has no effect on Christmas; it's the other way around. One cute little touch: as Sally and Jack wrap their arms around each other on the hill, Zero flies up into the sky, and where he vanishes out of the picture a star appears. And that's the end.