Not of this Earth

Though unprecedented, the final 'Rings' saga begs the question: Will Oscar finally warm to fantasy?

With the arrival of Peter Jackson’s trilogy-capping “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” has the time finally come for fantasy films to be legitimized by top-tier Oscar recognition?

That’s what New Line is hoping as it positions the “Rings” conclusion for the attention of Oscar voters — despite a complete absence of any Academy precedent for bestowing principal honors on a fantasy film.

Including the best pic noms for previous “Rings” installments, “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers,” only a handful of fantasy titles have made the shortlist in the top Oscar slot. Not one took home the gold. That list includes “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Lost Horizon,” “Star Wars” and “E.T.” — so clearly, “fantasy” encompasses a wide spectrum.

” ‘Lord of the Rings’ is a hybrid,” says New Line president of domestic marketing Russell Schwartz. “It’s a combination of the best of fantasy elements: imagination, visual effects, technical prowess. I think it’s the best of literary adaptations, based on a book read by well over 100 million people. And in another sense, it has the best of historical pedigrees because it’s based on the author’s real-life experiences during World War I and his fear of the encroaching Nazi movement in World War II.”

Those hybrid elements will be key to securing Oscar recognition beyond the obvious tech categories where the previous two chapters have been successful.

“A lot of it is how you define fantasy,” adds Schwartz. “Is it about where it takes place or what it is saying? I think ‘Return of the King’ has all the grand themes of the great big-scale Hollywood dramas.

“Is it about special effects? We have special effects, but so do a number of other films which may be best picture contenders, as did past winners like ‘Gladiator’ or ‘Titanic.’ I think Peter’s approach to the shape and scope of the Tolkien books suggest that this is a huge and unique world, but also a story that could only be told through very intimate human drama.”

Popular thinking says the Academy tends in general to take genre films less seriously. But while conventional wisdom said Westerns, B-movie thrillers or musicals lacked the heft to garner top Oscars, the trophies awarded to “Dances With Wolves” and “Unforgiven,” to “Silence of the Lambs” or to “Chicago” indicate contemporary Academy voters are less blinkered in the types of films they choose to embrace.

Schwartz points to the advent of controversial rapper Eminem winning a song Oscar for his “8 Mile” ditty, or of Roman Polanski, a director with an outstanding arrest warrant in the U.S., winning for “The Pianist,” as signs the perception of Academy voters as an aging group clinging to traditionalist values is outdated.

“There are no rules any more,” offers Schwartz. “People vote on the achievement of what they are seeing, not on the baggage they may at one time have brought to it. We’ve never bought that argument.”

Schwartz and the brass at New Line aren’t the only people singing “Return of the King’s” praises. Reviews have been largely stellar, from the major metropolitan newspapers to weekly and monthly magazines. That most esoterically oriented body of film pundits, the New York Film Critics Circle, in December voted “Return of the King” best picture of 2003 despite having failed to name either of the previous two chapters in any category.

Even David Thomson, the astringent, often provocative author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” is unequivocally praiseful. “I think ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is going to get best picture,” he says. “It’s going to do such business; it’s got imaginative integrity, it’s got vision. The overall achievement of the trilogy is so immense that it has to be recognized.”

Many critics and industryites, not to mention legions of Tolkien geeks, feel similarly, that Jackson is overdue recognition for a project that dwarfs almost anything in the history of cinema in terms of sheer size, scope and ambition. Rarely have popcorn entertainment, visual spectacle, literary pedigree and Shakespearean dramatic texture been wed with such intelligence as in the final chapter in particular.

One obstacle for New Line is that the majority of successful best picture contenders have built additional momentum with nominees in the lead acting categories. However, while the distrib is running a lead actor campaign for Elijah Wood, “Returnof the King” is very much an ensemble piece, and more likely to figure in the supporting ranks, where Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen and Miranda Otto are being pushed.

A number of best picture winners such as “Braveheart,” “The Last Emperor” and “Platoon” scored victories without lead acting nominations. But the tendency of actors — the largest body of Academy members — to vote more for actor-driven films may provide a minor stumbling block.

While every Oscar contender eyes the gold of a best picture or director statuette longingly, few filmmakers have had their eye on the prize as long as Jackson, whose completion of the “Rings” saga represents the culmination of five years’ work.

With close to $1.8 billion in the coffers for the first two installments and a seemingly not-unrealistic goal of $1 billion for the finale, the trilogy represents the best kind of behemoth — a massive logistical undertaking and even more daunting financial gamble, which has paid off stunningly both commercially and artistically.

What makes the overall achievement even more singular is that it was made in far-flung New Zealand, without the infrastructure or supervision of a major studio, maintaining — albeit in a vastly magnified version — the same spirit of cottage-industry enterprise and creative independence that has characterized Jackson’s work since his early days. (Expanding on structures he set up for “Heavenly Creatures,” the director built his own special effects and post-production facilities, providing a significant adrenaline shot for the New Zealand film industry.)

The view that filtered through the Oscar rumor mill in the past two years was that voters were saving their full-throttle endorsement of Jackson for the trilogy’s final chapter as a means of honoring the entire endeavor.

However, New Line was never a party to that thinking, which many observers believe was propagated by the distrib’s rivals. And those same rivals show no sign of stepping back or being less aggressive in their campaigning out of deference to Jackson this year. But New Line insists its campaign this time around is geared exclusively to “Return of the King” and not around the trilogy.

“Our intention is to focus completely on this film,” stresses Schwartz. “This is about this movie this year.”

Once the initial wave of critical coverage subsides, New Line is anticipating an ongoing stream of editorial think-pieces through January to keep “The Rings” high on Oscar voters’ radars — including those older voters who may be resistant to the genre. Some see the movies as boy toys unlikely to register across all the necessary demographics to secure the ultimate Oscar crown.

“Is there an audience segment that is not first to embrace this movie?” asks Schwartz. “Of course there is; In our case, I would say 50-plus women. Every movie has an Achilles’ heel, a group which is hardest to appeal to.

“Ultimately, the film will speak for itself and that’s the beauty of this voting process as compared to a regular election campaign.”

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