The epic journey of a raggedy gang of humans, hobbits, wizards, dwarves and elves hoisted the fantasy genre to Oscar glory Sunday as "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" won a record-tying 11 Oscars, sweeping every category in which it was nominated, including best picture.
The directing Oscar went to Peter Jackson, overlord of arguably the biggest undertaking in cinema history, the simultaneous filming of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth trilogy: "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King."
"I'm so honored and relieved that the academy and the members of the academy that have supported us have seen past the trolls and the wizards and the hobbits in recognizing fantasy this year," said Jackson, who just a few years ago was an obscure New Zealander known mainly for one admired art-house film ("Heavenly Creatures"), a run-of-the-mill Hollywood horror tale ("The Frighteners") and a scattering of cult splatter flicks ("Bad Taste," and "Meet the Feebles").
Other top Oscars played out predictably, with front-runners claiming all four acting trophies — the first for each.
Sean Penn took the best-actor prize as a vengeful father in "Mystic River," and Charlize Theron won for best actress as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster."
Oscars for supporting performances went to Tim Robbins as a man emotionally hamstrung by childhood trauma in "Mystic River" and Renee Zellweger as a hardy Confederate survivor in "Cold Mountain."
"Return of the King" matched the record 11 Oscar wins of "Titanic" and "Ben-Hur" and became only the third movie to sweep every category in which it was nominated, following "Gigi" and "The Last Emperor," which both went nine-for-nine.
Jackson also shared the adapted-screenplay Oscar with co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens.
The 42-year-old writer-director thanked "our wonderful cast who just got their tongues around this rather awkward text and made it come to life with such devotion and passion and heart."
"Return of the King" also won for song, musical score, visual effects, editing, makeup, art direction, costume design and sound mixing.
Penn, who skipped the Oscars when previously nominated for "Dead Man Walking," "Sweet and Lowdown" and "I Am Sam," showed up and accepted graciously — although he made a crack about there being no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Dismissive of awards in the past, Penn missed last month's Golden Globes but made a point to attend other Oscar and awards functions.
"If there's one thing that actors know, other than there weren't any WMDs, it's that there is no such thing as best in acting. And that's proven by these great actors that I was nominated with," said Penn, who received a standing ovation.
In "Monster," Theron was virtually unrecognizable, packing on 30 pounds and concealing her cover-girl beauty behind false teeth, splotchy makeup and dark contact lenses.
"I know everybody in New Zealand's been thanked, so I'm going to thank everybody in South Africa, my home country," said Theron, who had been generally regarded as a lightweight actress before "Monster." Her earlier credits include "The Cider House Rules," last summer's heist caper "The Italian Job" and such flops as "Reindeer Games" and "Sweet November."
Sofia Coppola's Oscar victory for original screenplay for "Lost in Translation" made her family the second clan of three-generation Oscar winners, joining Walter, John and Anjelica Huston. Her father is five-time Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola, who was an executive producer on "Lost in Translation." Her grandfather, Carmine Coppola, won for musical score on "The Godfather Part II."
"Thank you to my dad for everything he taught me," Coppola said. "Thank you to my brother Roman and all my friends who were there for me when I was stuck at 12 pages and encouraged me to keep writing."
Only a handful of fantasy films have been nominated for the top Oscar — "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers" among them — but none had won until now.
At best the genre was viewed as high camp, not the stuff of Oscars, which usually go to grand dramas with their feet firmly planted in recognizable reality.
The people behind "The Lord of the Rings" changed that, approaching Tolkien's mythical realm with dead seriousness. Jackson sought three-dimensional humanity all around — compassion, nobility and self-doubt in heroic hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood), wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), covetousness and Shakespearean malice in villains Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Gollum (a computer-generated creature voiced by Andy Serkis).
Audiences received Jackson's fantastical creation with equal seriousness, with global ticket sales of $2.8 billion for the three films. "Return of the King" has topped $1 billion alone, the No. 2 box-office draw behind "Titanic" at $1.8 billion.
Jackson labored for seven years to adapt Tolkien's trilogy — first persuading Hollywood bankers to stake him to the tune of $300 million, then marshaling a cast and crew of 2,000 to shoot the three films and land them in theaters just a year apart.
The result was a 9 1/2-hour saga — more than 11 hours once all three extended home-video versions are available — that seamlessly blended live action and computer animation. Real actors credibly shared the screen with flying beasts, hulking trolls, and walking, talking "tree shepherds."
Other "Return of the King" winners included composer Howard Shore, who took his second Oscar for writing "Lord of the Rings" music, having won two years ago on Part 1 of the saga, "The Fellowship of the Ring."
"Into the West," the wistful tune of farewell from "Return of the King," won the best-song Oscar. The song was written by Fran Walsh, the film's co-screenwriter; Howard Shore, its music composer; and Annie Lennox, who sings the tune.
The Oscars returned to full-glamour mode after two years in which Hollywood's prom night was muted by world events — the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2002 and the Iraq war in 2003.
With the passage of time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences figured it was safe to make merry again for the 76th annual Oscars.
Billy Crystal, returning as host for the first time in four years, opened with his usual montage of nominees, having himself inserted into spoofs of key Oscar contenders, including Diane Keaton's screeching nude scene in "Something's Gotta Give."
He joked that for the first time, the show was being simulcast in Aramaic, a poke at "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's divisive religious film that took in $117.5 million in its first five days. The movie was done in Aramaic and Latin, with English subtitles.
With all the awards for "Return of the King," produced in New Zealand, Crystal joked: "It's now official. There is nobody left in New Zealand to thank."