Hansel and Gretel are at home, working to earn some money for their poor family: Hansel makes brooms and Gretel is mending things. The children are hungry and distracted, especially Hansel. Gretel tells her brother that their mother has hinted that she expects to sell enough brooms to buy food. With the prospect of something for supper, both children are more animated.
Their mother Gertrude returns, angry at how little they have done while she was gone. Unable to conceal her irritation, she knocks the pitcher of milk onto the floor, and dinner is lost. Despondent, she sends the children into the forest to find something to eat. Their father Peter returns from a successful day selling brooms, with baskets full of food. When Peter notices that the children aren’t there, Gertrude explains that she sent them into the forest. Frightened, Peter tells his wife that he heard the townspeople speak of a witch living in the woods, who turns children into gingerbread by burning them alive in her oven. Both parents rush into the forest to search for the children.
Hansel and Gretel gather mushrooms and berries in the forest. Unable to resist playing, however, Hansel falls on their baskets, destroying them and crushing their food. As night falls, the forest becomes scarier, and the children realize that they are lost. Every noise and shadow frightens the children. The Sandman appears, dusting their eyes with sand, causing them to grow tired. The children say their evening prayers and fall asleep together beneath the trees.
An orchestral interlude (The Witch’s Ride) introduces a new day. The Dew Fairy arrives to awaken Hansel and Gretel. The children are groggy at first, but delight overcomes them when they discover a gingerbread house decorated with every sort of candy imaginable. As they nibble at bits of the house, the Witch approaches, first inviting them inside gently. When the children refuse, the Witch uses her black magic to keep them there.
It becomes frighteningly clear to the children that they are on the evening’s menu. The Witch feeds Hansel, casting a spell that causes him to grow until he is plump enough to roast. While the Witch flies around the house excitedly on her broomstick, Gretel uses one of the Witch’s spells to enable Hansel to move. When the Witch orders Gretel to follow Hansel into the oven, the girl pretends not to know how and asks the witch to show her. Leaning into the oven, the Witch falls for the children’s trap: they shove her inside.
Her spells broken, the children who had been baked to make the gingerbread house return to life. Hansel and Gretel’s courage and bravery are celebrated by the other children. Peter and Gertrude come upon the scene, and are happily reunited with Hansel and Gretel, and everybody celebrates the children’s triumph.