The story is set in southern Italy and recounts the tragedy of Canio, the lead clown (or pagliaccio in Italian) in a commedia dell'arte troupe, his wife Nedda, and her lover, Silvio. When Nedda spurns the advances of Tonio, another player in the troupe, he tells Canio about Nedda's betrayal. In a jealous rage Canio murders both Nedda and Silvio. Although Leoncavallo's opera was originally set in the late 1860's, Zeffirelli's production is updated to the period between World War I and World War II.
On another planet in the distant past, a Gelfling embarks on a quest to find the missing shard of a magical crystal and restore order to his world, before the grotesque race of Skeksis find and use the crystal for evil.
Dar, is the son of a king, who is hunted by a priest after his birth and grows up in another family. When he becomes a grown man his new father is murdered by savages and he discovers that he has the ability to communicate with the animals, which leads him on his quest for revenge against his father's killers.