E.T. (search) could not do it. Neither could Luke Skywalker (search) or Dorothy Gale. Yet Frodo Baggins (search) and his hobbit, elf and wizard pals are on the verge of claiming Academy Awards respectability for the land of make-believe.

Fantastical tales have a long and dismal Oscar history, but "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of The King" (search) looks ready to change that, taking front-runner status for best picture with a leading 11 Oscar nominations.

Such sci-fi and fantasy films as "The Wizard of Oz," (search"Star Wars" (search) and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" are among the rare otherworldly movies to earn best-picture nominations. None has won, though, with academy voters tending toward weighty dramas over fanciful tales regarded more as kid flicks than serious cinema.

While few dispute the cinematic merits of "E.T." and the other fantasy flicks, the films that beat each one for best picture have all gone down in history as classics. In 1983 the true life tale  "Gandhi" (search) beat out "E.T." for best picture. "Star Wars" missed the top award when it went to "Annie Hall" (search) in 1978 and "The Wizard of Oz" lost to "Gone With the Wind" (search) in 1940.

With "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's epic Middle-earth adventure, director Peter Jackson has altered the face of fantasy. He crafted a world not only of dazzling visuals but also of heart, humor, three-dimensional characters and Shakespearean drama.

Jackson took Tolkien's highly literary text seriously, as have the fans who have shelled out $2.6 billion -- and counting -- worldwide.

"Peter right from the beginning treated this as though he was making a historical drama. As though it was really based in reality," said Barrie Osborne, a producer on all three "Lord of the Rings" films. "That resonated through everything, the performances, the costumes, the armor. It's all real."

Along with best picture, other nominations for the franchise's final installment include best director for Jackson, adapted screenplay, visual effects and score and song.

"Return of the King" took last weekend's Golden Globe for best drama, but Jackson sidestepped questions about the film's front-runner status.

"It's territory that's sort of like tempting fate," Jackson said. "That's bad-luck territory. There's plenty of instances of front-runners not winning, so we don't really want to go there at all."

The Napoleonic era naval adventure "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" received 10 nominations, including best picture and director for Peter Weir.

To win, "Return of the King" would have to beat out "Commander" and the other nominees, the quirky Tokyo tale "Lost in Translation," the somber vengeance story "Mystic River" and the uplifting horse-racing drama "Seabiscuit."