- Associated Press - Sunday, February 27, 2011

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The Lewis Carroll update “Alice in Wonderland” won the first prize at the Academy Awards on Sunday, claiming the art direction Oscar over a field including best-picture favorite “The King’s Speech.”

“The King’s Speech,” dramatizing British monarch George VI’s struggle to vanquish a crippling stammer, leads the 83rd annual Oscars with 12 nominations and is favored to win best picture.

Yet “The Social Network,” chronicling Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s fierce legal battles over the spoils of his creation, remains a serious candidate for the Oscar crown.

The two films have led a strong and varied field of best-picture contenders since they debuted nearly six months ago. “The Social Network” was the early leader, grabbing key critics’ honors and winning best drama at the Golden Globes. Momentum shifted to “The King’s Speech” as the film dominated on Oscar nominations morning and swept top awards from influential actors, directors and producers guilds.

The show opened with co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco inserted into a montage of scenes from best-picture nominees, built as a series of dream sequences reminiscent of Oscar contender “Inception.” The footage included such guests as Morgan Freeman and last year’s Oscar co-host Alec Baldwin.

Franco started off telling Hathaway how beautiful she looked. Hathaway shot back, “You look very appealing to a younger demographic, as well.”

“Alice in Wonderland” production designer Robert Stromberg had warm words for the film’s director, Tim Burton.

“Meet me with a saw, because half of this is yours,” Stromberg told Burton, holding up his Oscar.

Also up for best picture: the psychosexual thriller “Black Swan”; the boxing drama “The Fighter”; the sci-fi blockbuster “Inception”; the lesbian-family tale “The Kids Are All Right”; the survival chronicle “127 Hours”; the animated comedy “Toy Story 3”; the Western “True Grit”; and the Ozarks crime story “Winter’s Bone.”

“Inception” took the night’s second prize, for cinematography, leaving “The King’s Speech” zero-for-two on its first nominations.

With TV ratings on a general decline over the last few decades, Oscar organizers doubled the best-picture category from five to 10 films last year, hoping to spice up the show and bring in a broader range of films. Academy overseers also have tried to liven up the show with fresh hosts, new routines and different ways of presenting awards.

It paid off last year, when the low-budget Iraq War drama “The Hurt Locker” beat sci-fi behemoth “Avatar” for best picture. TV viewers totaled 41.7 million, up 15 percent from the previous year and the biggest Oscar audience in five years.

This time, Oscar planners cast youthful hosts Hathaway and Franco (also a best-actor nominee for “127 Hours”) and promised exotic visuals as backdrops to the ceremony. They also stepped up pressure for winners to keep speeches short and sharp, rather than intone long thank-you lists.

To hear Franco describe it, this year’s nearly four hour show should prove a mix of old and new.

The Oscars have “been going on for 83 years. I’m kind of joining a bigger apparatus, so it’s going to be pretty familiar in some ways, but I think it’ll be fun,” Franco said backstage Saturday at the Spirit Awards honoring independent film, where he won best actor for “127 Hours.” “They’re allowing us to be relaxed. They’re not stretching us into some mold that we don’t fit.”

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