The film is based on Engelbert Humperdinck's opera Hänsel und Gretel, and incorporates music and songs from the opera. It was the first American feature-length animated film not made by Disney since 1941's Mr. Bug Goes to Town and the first feature-length animated film not made with traditional animation.
It was released on October 10, 1954 in New York City without a distributor. Producer Michael Myerberg released the film himself. Based on the positive reviews and box office performance, RKO Radio Pictures acquired the film for wide release for the Christmas season.
The film was sold to television four years after it was released, where it became a Christmas season tradition on several affiliate stations.
In 1959, at the second annual Grammy Awards, conductor Franz Allers was nominated for the soundtrack in the category of "Best Recording for Children".
The film was re-released theatrically in 1965 through New Trends Associates, and in March 1973 through MGM. The title was modified to "Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy" beginning with the 2001 DVD release.
In 1952, Evalds Dajevskis began working for Myerberg Productions' to conceptualize the look of the film and design the miniature sets. Dajevskis built the sets out of thick paper mache, appliqued paper cutouts, and painted backings. The Witch's Gingerbread House, the Hall of the Angels, and Hansel & Gretel's home were all constructed with trap doors underneath. Since the sets were so large, there was no way to get in and animate the figures except from below.
The film was shot in Myerberg's Second Avenue Studios (located at 216 East 2nd St., between Avenue B and Avenue C). The puppets used in the film were called "kinemans". The bodies of the kinemins were sculpted in clay by James Summers and cast in foam latex by George Butler. Summers also did the paint job and their "makeup. The puppets were one-third life-size and cost $2,500 apiece to build.
The Witch was re-named Rosina Rubylips. This is different from the original opera, where the witch tells Hansel that her name is Rosine Leckermaul (translated as Rosina Tastymuzzle).
The mother and father figures were sculpted to resemble Mildred Dunnock (Death of a Salesman) and Frank Rogier, who supplied their voices.
After production, the Hansel & Gretel sets were cut up, carted away, and eventually sold to an amusement park where they were poorly reconstructed in a tent for display. In 1955, vandals looted Myerberg's East Second Street studio and destroyed the remaining kinemins.
In 1965, screenwriter Padriac Colum sold his copy of the screenplay (along with his notebooks, manuscripts, galley proofs, and letters) to the Binghamton University Libraries. Within the collection, the screenplay is identified as: Box 18, Folder 10: Play Manuscript 21 and is available for research viewing.
In 1971, producer Michael Myerberg placed "The Michael Myerberg Papers, 1940-1971" with University of Wisconsin–Madison Library. "Hansel and Gretel" is among the productions documented through correspondence, contracts, financial records, promotional materials, reviews, and scripts. Anna Russell as Rosina Rubylips, the Witch
Mildred Dunnock as Mother
Frank Rogier as Father
Constance Brigham as Hansel and Gretel
Helen Boatwright as Dew Fairy
Delbert Anderson as Sandman
1954 Parents' Magazine Medal for Movie of the Month (October)
1959 Grammy Award nominee for "Best Recording for Children"
1995 Dove Foundation Family Approved Seal
RKO heavily promoted the film in time for the 1954 Christmas season. There was $10 million worth of tie-ins, including candy, clothing, figurines and toys.
The film has been released on VHS, CED videodisc, and DVD. The VHS and CED videodiscs contain the original title. The DVD was released on October 30, 2001 with the modified title of "Hansel and Gretel: A Opera Fantasy".
An LP of the film's soundtrack was released in 1955 under the label "X" RCA, in 1959 under the label RCA Victor, and in 1960 under the label RCA Camden. In 1959, it was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category "Best Recording for Children".