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."