Why did LOTR drop off the critical radar at decade's end? Methinks it's due to that perennial, fundamental disrespect of the fantasy and science fiction genre, the same reason "sci-fi" literature was/is ghettoized and consigned to the bring-your-own-blacklight section of your local bookstore. See Ellison, Harlan, or King, Stephen. Or better, Dick, Philip, K. (while he was alive). "Fantasy" is just not as critic- or award-friendly as, say, our annual dose of Clint Eastwood directed melodramatic "relevant" Oscar fodder.
Or, as the great Firesign Theatre pinpointed, "honest stories of working people as told by rich Hollywood stars."
Let's be clear. Peter Jackson finally got his Oscar for "Lord of the Rings" by simple attrition. After three consecutive films of excellence, and frankly, some palooka-like competition in 2004 ("Seabiscuit," anyone? "Master and Commander"?), the Academy just got worn down.
Look at "Avatar."
The smug critical consensus seems to be: If Cameron could have only jettisoned that stupid fantastic story, the amazing fantastic world he created might have really been cool. Uh, but, um, did not one begat the other? Is not the simple, elegant, uncluttered fantasy the beating heart of the thing? This smugness pervades how Cameron has been regarded his entire career. He's just that Canuck Fanboy Truck Driver who somehow managed to crash the Oscars with "Titanic." And when Cameron consecrated that moment by quoting a line delivered by his doomed, hubristic, foolishly optimistic lead character, in a wry foreshadowing of his own post-"Titanic" future, well, let's just say the irony was lost, and has been lost in approximately 10,237 (wait, 10,332 as of last Monday) subsequent lazy "journalistic" references to that boorish egomaniac who thought he was the "King of the World."
But I digress.
There are a lot of "fantasy" films that fully deserve critical scorn, and audience disdain. As the great fantasist Theodore Sturgeon opined, "90% of everything is crap."
But that 10 percent that isn't should be allowed to keep winning the race against "Seabiscuit."