LOS ANGELES -- Last year, the musical returned to Academy Awards grace with best-picture winner "Chicago." Now, the long-overlooked fantasy genre is positioned for Oscar favor.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is shaping up as the dominant picture at the 76th annual awards Sunday. With clear front-runners in most major categories, the show could end up anticlimactic, though a surprise or two is possible.
A look at the nominees in the top categories:
Give those hairy little hobbits their Oscar and be done with it. "The Return of the King" is steamrolling its way to the top prize with momentum not seen since 1997's "Titanic."
The culmination of Peter Jackson's prodigious adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy, "Return of the King" is the darling of critics and audiences and has cleaned up at previous Hollywood honors, including the Golden Globes and awards from the guilds representing directors, actors and producers.
Few otherworldly films have ever been nominated, and no fantasy flick has won the top Oscar. But no other filmmaker ever took the genre as seriously as Jackson.
The previous two chapters, 2001's "The Fellowship of the Ring" and 2002's "The Two Towers," were nominated for best picture but lost. The sense from the start was that the good people of Middle-earth had their best Oscar shot with Part 3, as their epic battle against evil - and Jackson's herculean labors to craft a nearly 10-hour saga - reached a climax.
Fan adoration and ticket sales bear out that theory, with "Return of the King" the top-grossing of the three, becoming the No. 2 all-time box-office draw worldwide behind "Titanic." Reviews were reverential, and "Return of the King" was a rare populist choice for movie of the year by the typically hoity-toity New York Film Critics Circle.
The only potential chink in the film's armor is that it was shut out in the four acting categories. Actors, who make up about one-fourth of the 5,803 Oscar voters, sometimes are reluctant to embrace big special-effects films, feeling the visuals diminish their own craft.
Ian McKellen as the hoary wizard Gandalf scored the trilogy's only performing nomination, as supporting actor for "Fellowship of the Ring."
The Screen Actors Guild, though, did honor "Return of the King" with its award for best ensemble performance.
And Hollywood at large has great admiration for the humanity the players invested in the franchise's fanciful characters, including Elijah Wood and Sean Astin as pint-sized hobbits, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean and Miranda Otto as human warriors, Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies as mismatched elf-dwarf buddies, and McKellen.
"I think one of our problems is we have such strong performances within an ensemble cast that it's difficult for any particular performance to rise above the others and become the dominant one," Jackson said. "And maybe the fantasy image does impact the actors a little. Do you take the performances as seriously if you're a wizard or a hobbit?"
Partly on the strength of acting nominations for Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden, the somber vengeance drama "Mystic River" may be the strongest best-picture rival to "Return of the King."
But it's a distant second at best. With Penn and Robbins considered front-runners for lead and supporting actor, Oscar voters may feel they have done right by "Mystic River" in casting ballots for the performers, leaving the best-picture field to "Return of the King."
The other nominees - the misfit friendship tale "Lost in Translation," the naval adventure "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and the horse-racing drama "Seabiscuit" - look like happy-to-be-nominated also-rans.
"Master and Commander" and "Seabiscuit" have historic depth that could have made them contenders in a year without a "Lord of the Rings"-style behemoth. "Lost in Translation" has a devoted following but probably is too quirky and intimate a story to go home with the top prize.
The Oscar is Sean Penn's to lose, but the surly actor who has been disparaging about awards in the past has put on an obliging front this time.
Penn's absence at last month's Golden Globes, where he was named best-dramatic actor as a vengeful father in "Mystic River," could have weakened his prospects, sending a signal to his peers that he simply does not care about Hollywood honors.
Since then, Penn has turned up at other awards functions and plans to attend the Oscars after skipping the ceremony for previous best-actor nominations for "Dead Man Walking," "Sweet and Lowdown" and "I Am Sam."
Penn's apparent message to Hollywood now: I will run if nominated, I will serve if elected.
"I am honored to be acknowledged," Penn graciously said the day nominations were announced.
His reputation as a dramatic heavyweight overdue for an Oscar helps Penn's prospects, and his supple performance in "Mystic River" - ranging from unreasoning grief to seething rage to cold-blooded amorality - is a worthy vehicle to bring Penn his Oscar.
Possibly sealing the deal is another terrific performance last fall as a dying heart patient in "21 Grams" - which could well have earned Penn a second nomination if Oscar rules did not prohibit dual honors in the same acting category.
Penn's main competition is another standoffish actor, Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation," playing a has-been movie star shooting a commercial in Tokyo. Murray won the Golden Globe for comedy actor and has enormous good will in Hollywood as a jester who has elevated comic roles to higher art.
Academy respect was a long time coming for Murray, the ex-"Saturday Night Live" ham who had great success in the 1980s with broad comedies such as "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters" but was disregarded on early dramatic efforts like "The Razor's Edge."
"Groundhog Day," with Murray delivering one of the finest modern comedy performances, showcased his subtle timing. A terrific performance in "Rushmore" failed to earn Murray an Oscar nomination, but that role and such films as "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Ed Wood" helped pave the way for an Oscar acceptance with "Lost in Translation."
Johnny Depp, nominated as the twitchy buccaneer of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," was a surprise winner over Penn and Murray at the SAG Awards.
Depp's march to the Oscars was the opposite of Murray's. A career of daring dramatic roles in smaller films failed to earn Depp a single nomination, but he finally joined the Oscar club in a blockbuster action comedy.
The SAG win may have given Depp some extra Oscar votes as last-minute ballots trickled in, but academy members tend toward weighty drama such as "Mystic River" over broad comedy like "Pirates."
While Hollywood would love to give Depp an Oscar, it more likely will come for a meatier role down the road.
Ben Kingsley, in the running for "House of Sand and Fog," is a best-actor winner for "Gandhi" and had supporting-actor nominations for "Bugsy" and "Sexy Beast." Kingsley is a longshot this time as an Iranian immigrant battling for possession of a home. While a fine role, Kingsley's part is not the sort of slam-dunk performance that brings a second Oscar.
Likewise, Jude Law as a Civil War deserter in "Cold Mountain" is a longshot. Law, previously nominated as supporting actor for "The Talented Mr. Ripley," has been a distant runner-up in earlier film honors.
Oscar voters love physical transformations (Robert De Niro packing on the pounds for "Raging Bull," Daniel Day-Lewis feigning cerebral palsy in "My Left Foot," Nicole Kidman and her fake nose in "The Hours").
As serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster," Charlize Theron obliterates her cover-girl beauty. She gained 30 pounds, wore dark contact lenses and was unrecognizable behind false teeth, stringy hair and splotchy makeup.
A fright wig and flabby flesh do not win Oscars, though. Theron's animated, anguished performance - subtly allowing viewers to empathize with the character even as they find her actions repugnant - has made her the favorite to win with her first nomination.
Before "Monster," Theron generally was dismissed as a pretty face with adequate acting chops at best. "The Cider House Rules" gave Theron her most notable serious role, but her other credits were heavy on so-so parts in mediocre movies.
Theron has triumphed in many earlier film honors, including the Golden Globes and SAG awards.
Diane Keaton, the Globe winner for comedy actress for "Something's Gotta Give," presents Theron's chief obstacle. Keaton, a best-actress winner for 1977's "Annie Hall" who also had nominations for "Reds" and "Marvin's Room," scored a huge commercial and critical comeback as a romantic cynic at the center of a love triangle.
Keaton's playful performance reminded viewers of an Annie Hall gracefully aged, and the film's $100 million gross put youth-minded Hollywood on notice that movies with older casts can click with audiences.
"Our generation of women has been discounted as a demographic that does not go to the movies, when in fact, we will," the 58-year-old Keaton said. "Give us a chance. We may not hit opening weekend like the younger generation does, but we'll be there. Movies with older people do have an audience. We'll go, and you can expect a profit."
As a champion for longevity in a business where actors and even filmmakers have a limited shelf life, Keaton could pull in enough votes for a second Oscar.
At the other end of the spectrum is 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, the youngest best-actress nominee ever. Castle-Hughes made a remarkable film debut as a Maori girl who bucks tradition and fights for leadership of her tribe in "Whale Rider."
But Castle-Hughes is a longshot, as is Samantha Morton, nominated for "In America," in which she plays an Irishwoman rebounding from tragedy and building a new life in New York City with her family. Morton previously was nominated as supporting actress for "Sweet and Lowdown."
First-time nominee Naomi Watts has an outside chance at a dark-horse win for "21 Grams," in which she plays a grieving wife and mother bent on revenge. It's a showy performance that takes Watts from quiet introspection to gut-wrenching sorrow to ferocious anger, and in a less competitive year, could have made Watts the front-runner.
Tim Robbins, who received the Golden Globe and SAG prize, is the likely winner for "Mystic River," in which he plays a man tormented by childhood trauma. Like co-star Penn, Robbins has a body of work that has earned him great respect among his peers, and "Mystic River" is his finest performance yet.
It was the first acting nomination for Robbins, who was nominated for best director on "Dead Man Walking."
Benicio Del Toro, a supporting-actor winner for "Traffic," is the only performer in the category with a previous Oscar nomination. Del Toro was honored for "21 Grams," in which he plays an ex-con whose efforts to go straight end in tragedy.
The other first-time nominees are Alec Baldwin as a slimy casino owner in "The Cooler," Djimon Hounsou as an artist dying of AIDS in "In America" and Ken Watanabe as a noble rebel warrior in "The Last Samurai."
With Renee Zellweger's third-straight nomination, this could be her year. Nominated previously as best actress for "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Chicago," Zellweger enlivened "Cold Mountain" with heart and humor as an indefatigable handywoman.
The Golden Globe and SAG winner, Zellweger looks to be the favorite at the Oscars, as well.
Two first-time nominees pose her main competition. Shohreh Aghdashloo has caught terrific Oscar buzz for her role as a compassionate Iranian woman in "House of Sand and Fog." And Patricia Clarkson, an overlooked Hollywood stalwart who has emerged with a string of notable roles, delivers an acerbically funny performance as a breast-cancer victim in "Pieces of April."
The other nominees have won Oscars, Marcia Gay Harden (supporting-actress recipient for "Pollock") and Holly Hunter (best-actress winner for "The Piano").
Harden was nominated this time as Robbins' rankled, suspicious wife in "Mystic River." Hunter, also a past nominee as best actress for "Broadcast News" and supporting actress for "The Firm," was cited again for "thirteen," in which she plays a single mom with a rebellious daughter.
Both Harden and Hunter are considered longshots.
After seven years of work and three straight blockbusters, Peter Jackson should finally have an Oscar of his own to call "my precious."
With "Return of the King," Jackson won the top filmmaking prize at the Golden Globes and the Directors Guild of America awards. If Jackson fails to win the Oscar, it would be one of the biggest directing upsets in Hollywood history.
Jackson was nominated two years ago for "The Fellowship of the Ring," but he was snubbed by the Oscars last year for "The Two Towers." As with the best-picture race, the feeling has been that academy voters would hold off and give Jackson the Oscar for the final installment as an acknowledgment of the overall trilogy.
The other nominees include Clint Eastwood ("Mystic River"), who won the directing Oscar for "Unforgiven," which also earned him a best-actor nomination.
Peter Weir earned his fourth nomination for "Master and Commander." He previously was cited for "Witness," "Dead Poets Society" and "The Truman Show."
Sofia Coppola, the daughter of Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola, earned her first directing nomination for "Lost in Translation." While an unlikely directing winner, Coppola could walk away with the original-screenplay Oscar.
The fifth nominee was a surprise pick, Fernando Meirelles for the Brazilian drug-crime drama "City of God."